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Dartmouth-Hitchcock executive resigns amid staffing turmoil, deficit

State House Bureau

October 05. 2016 1:40PM

LEBANON — Another top executive at Dartmouth-Hitchcock has resigned, as the health care system continues to struggle with staffing issues at the state psychiatric hospital, a budget deficit and the continued departure of hard-to-hire psychiatrists.

Dr. John Birkmeyer, executive vice president and chief academic officer, resigned with only a week’s notice, according to Dartmouth-Hitchcock CEO Dr. James Weinstein.

In an email to “all members of the Dartmouth-Hitchcock community” distributed on Tuesday, Weinstein said Birkmeyer’s resignation takes effect on Oct. 14.

Birkmeyer managed the academic and research functions at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, and presided over the transfer of contracted psychiatric services for the state from the Dartmouth College Geisel School of Medicine to Dartmouth-Hitchcock, which by all accounts has not gone very smoothly.

Contracts for a number of psychiatrists and psychiatric nurses at New Hampshire Hospital were not renewed in a labor dispute over the transition. Dartmouth-Hitchcock has been struggling to fill all the vacancies at the state hospital and recently announced plans for more than 400 layoffs in the wake of a budget deficit for the year.

Days after the layoffs were announced, New Hampshire Hospital’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Folks, a Dartmouth-Hitchcock employee, announced he is resigning in January.

The tumult surrounding the transfer of the contract for management of New Hampshire Hospital from the Geisel School of Medicine to Dartmouth-Hitchcock has prompted Republican gubernatorial candidate Chris Sununu to call for a reopening of the bidding process.

Sununu is a member of the Executive Council, representing the Seacoast area, and was among the five who voted on Sept. 7 to approve the three-year contract worth $36.5 million. Two days later, the layoffs were announced, followed by the Sept. 19 resignation of Dr. Folk.

That changed Sununu’s position, but the other four councilors, including his Democratic opponent, Colin Van Ostern, declined to revisit the matter on the recommendation of Gov. Maggie Hassan and Jeffrey Meyers, commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services.

On his way out of the Executive Council meeting Wednesday in Exeter, Sununu reiterated his concerns.

“Given all the red flags that have come up surrounding this contract and Dartmouth-Hitchcock itself, there’s no question in my mind that it absolutely has to be re-bid,” he said. “It has been mismanaged from the beginning and you can’t keep kicking the can down the road and expecting a different result.”

Van Ostern stopped short of calling for the contract to be re-bid, but emphasized that the state still has that option, and has to monitor contract compliance by Dartmouth-Hitchcock very carefully.

“One of the reasons that it’s important that we have a legal contract is because we need to hold Dartmouth-Hitchcock accountable to the contract they’ve entered into regarding their staffing levels,” he said.

Van Ostern noted: “We’re on track to expand the number of full-time support provided through the contract, from about 24 overall back in June to about 34 by Nov. 1, which I think is the right direction and I think we need to hold them to the letter of that contract.”

At the council’s request, Meyers agreed to start providing a weekly update on staffing and recruitment at New Hampshire Hospital.

No reason given

A graduate of Boston College and Harvard Medical School, Birkmeyer received his general surgery training at Dartmouth and worked there as a surgeon early in his career, according to his biography on the Dartmouth College website. He joined the Dartmouth faculty in 1996 and was subsequently appointed chief of general surgery.

He later went on to work as professor of surgery at the University of Michigan and returned to Dartmouth-Hitchcock in 2014 in the executive role.

In his message to employees, Weinstein gave no reason for Birkmeyer’s departure. A company spokesman said Dartmouth-Hitchcock would have no comment beyond the email.

Dr. Ed Merrens, executive medical director, will take over Birkmeyer’s responsibilities on an interim basis as Dartmouth-Hitchcock decides how to move forward, Weinstein wrote.

Dr. Matt Davis, one of the psychiatrists who once worked at New Hampshire Hospital as an employee of the Geisel School of Medicine, said he had no contact with Birkmeyer as he and 10 of his peers tried earlier this year to negotiate conditions that would enable them to stay at the state psychiatric facility.

“I’m not sure what to make of it,” he said of Birkmeyer’s departure. “I’m not sure if it’s another shoe dropping or reflective of Dartmouth-Hitchcock realizing that this transition unfortunately didn’t go very smoothly and New Hampshire Hospital has not been left in an ideal place. I’m not sure if this is one of the repercussions from that or if it demonstrates further instability in the corporation.”

Union Leader Correspondent Jason Schreiber contributed to this report.

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