Port: Questions about CEO, and a Facebook joke, end with two rural health care workers fired without cause during pandemic
MINOT, N.D. -- An organization providing health care services in rural North Dakota terminated, without cause, physician assistants in two of its busiest clinics even as they received a big dollop of tax dollars aimed at keeping health care workers working.
On April 3, Brenna Hudson of Ray and Shelley Bartow of Bowbells each received a fax at their respective clinics from their employers at Northland Health Centers, an organization that operates health care facilities across North Dakota . The documents informed them they were being terminated without cause.
On April 7, U.S. Sen. John Hoeven's office announced that Northland Health Centers was receiving $650,630 as a part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The funding is intended to help providers like Northland "continue addressing the needs of those across the state as we respond to the COVID-19 pandemic," as Hoeven put it in his news release .
Currently, Hudson and Bartow aren't serving their communities. They cannot refill prescriptions. They cannot assist with COVID-19 testing.
The citizens in those communities, which are already short on health care services, are now left with even fewer options in the middle of a global pandemic.
Why were Hudson and Bartow terminated?
Again, the official reason is no reason at all, but unofficially Bartow tells me her friction with Northland CEO Nadine Boe began with an off-color joke on Facebook about a penis pump.
"I posted something on Facebook on my day off," an embarrassed Bartow told me, indicating it was something about how someone who talks with their hands would explain how a penis pump works (I'll let you readers put the rest of that one together).
Bartow says she was contacted by Boe about the post. "She demanded I take it down," Bartow said, adding that she did remove the post, but also blocked Boe on the platform.
But both Bartow and Hudson say they were really fired for raising issues with Boe's leadership at Northland predating anything occurring on Facebook. Both say they were concerned about the numerous health care workers who have left the organization since Boe took over.
Hudson, who was also a supervisor for all of Northland's physician assistants and nurse practitioners in North Dakota, said she was worried about the lack of medical perspective in Northland's leadership.
In February, Bartow and Hudson wrote a letter of complaint about Boe to Northland's Board of Directors. This prompted an internal investigation, Bartow and Hudson told me, though not a very transparent one.
"I don't know the outcome," Bartow said. "We're not privy to that."
What both do know is they were fired once the investigation was completed.
Randy Stefanson, a Moorhead attorney representing Northland, was reticent to comment when I spoke with him. He offered to send me documents Northland had provided to the city of Ray regarding this situation but also suggested he might withhold them (despite their status as public records) if I persisted in inquiries to Northland personnel.
"You can just call the CEO if you're going to do what the hell you want anyway," Stefanson told me.
I did call Boe's office and left a message -- her receptionist said she was on another line -- and it hasn't been returned.
Stefanson hasn't yet provided me with the documents as I write this, but Hudson did send me a copy. The documents consist of a letter to the city from Northland board chairman Ben Mack as well as an email from Northland Medical Director Ashley Kremer.
Northland Docs by Rob Port on Scribd
Northland Docs by Rob Port on Scribd
"We have made no comment publicly on the basis for the discharge and termination of this employee as she was an at-will employee as we did not need any reason to terminate her employment," Mack wrote in his letter, referring to Hudson (Bartow isn't mentioned). Mack's letter also accuses Hudson of coordinating a "public campaign" to gain her reinstatement.
Hudson denied this to me, saying the blowback was coming from the public. "My patients started coming out of the woodwork," Hudson told me. "They started a petition. They started contacting the media."
I can say that I was contacted by two of my readers in Ray who asked me to cover the situation and initiated contact with Bartow and Hudson after that.
"It is heartbreaking and outrageous that they were terminated without cause during a pandemic leaving our two communities, surrounding communities, and rural folk vulnerable in a time like this," one reader told me in an email. "Help us, Rob."
Mack's email also references their internal investigation. Without divulging its specific findings, he said the inquiry caused Northland's board to decide to terminate Hudson. "The Board has expressed it (sic) full support of CEO Nadine Boe after review and consideration of the investigation report and all of the events that arose from this matter."
A voicemail left for Mack has not been returned.
The folks at Northland are right in that they don't need a reason to fire an employee. But Northland also receives significant amounts of public money, including the recent CARES Act dollars Hoeven announced.
They may not have to explain why they fired two physician assistants in tiny communities with few alternatives for care, but if they want to be good neighbors and good stewards of our tax dollars, shouldn't they?
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org .