Norton Sound Health Corp. refuses to hire qualified physician
Norton Sound Health Corporation administration recently came under strong criticism as news surfaced that the corporation refused to hire a Nome-grown, third-generation doctor for undisclosed reasons.
The doctor not hired is Dr. Ben Head, son of longtime NSHC Medical Director Dr. David Head, who was recently demoted, and grandson of Dr. Kitchener Head who also worked at NSHC from 1986 until 1990.
Dr. David Head was forced to relinquish his position as Medical Director last year as a disciplinary measure by the NSHC administration. This punishment came at the heels of NSHC allegations that Dr. Karen O’Neill was overprescribing opioids. However, in late November, the State Medical Board closed its investigation and cleared Dr. O’Neill of the allegations.
Dr. Head declined to comment at this time.
Dr. Ben Head, 32, said in an interview with The Nome Nugget via email that he was devastated by the NSHC decision to not hire him and that he could not receive an answer to the question: Why?
When the same question was posed via email by the Nugget to the entire NSHC board of directors and the administration, CEO and President Angie Gorn declined comment in an email, which cc’d general counsel John Kitchens, Chief Operating Officer Christopher Bolton, Vice President Philip Hofstetter and communications specialist Reba Lean.
“Several of your questions are specific to personnel matters that we will not be able to comment on,” Gorn wrote.
She referred this reporter to two statements from June 2017, which is neither on NSHC’s webpage nor Facebook page, and a Dec. 23, 2017 post on Facebook with a letter from the Board of Directors.
Gorn also said that public comments are welcome at the next full board meeting, which is scheduled to be held in Nome on January 30 through Feb. 1. In February, the board and support staff are slated to travel to Maui, Hawaii for a leadership training at the Grand Wailea Resort.
None of the board members have responded to The Nome Nugget’s questions.
In a phone conversation with City of Nome representative to the NSHC board, Stan Andersen also referred to the Dec. 23 letter from the board and confirmed that the board wrote the letter. It begins by providing context to the board’s decision to not extend physician’s contracts without naming whose and for not hiring another physician, presumably Dr. Ben Head. The letter says, “It is unfortunate that a small number of local residents have written disparaging remarks based on false truths and rumors related to administrative practices and personnel decisions at Norton Sound Health Corporation (NSHC). The truth of the matter is that this entire situation with the hateful posts began when NSHC took action to stop the deadly overprescribing of narcotics to patients by a single physician.”
The letter goes on to say “Recent decisions regarding the aftermath of the Board’s decisions to address the over prescription of opioids in the region are now being met with hateful and misguided posts on social media; comments of which are not based on fact but innuendo regarding either not hiring or not renewing the contracts of two other physicians. These decisions were made by the Board of Directors after careful consideration of both circumstances of these two physicians. These decisions were not made in haste and were thoroughly discussed by the Board of Directors.” The letter asserts that the board is in full control of all major operations and decisions affecting the hospital. “We are Tribal members with families and friends adversely impacted by the actions and decisions of the previously mentioned individuals,” the letter states. “We are the people you eat with, celebrate with, and talk to every day. We strive to make all decisions in the best interest of our people and to promote quality health services and wellness within our people and environment.”
A dream crushed
Ben Head was raised with his siblings in Nome by Lori and David Head. Dr. David Head works at NSHC and life was quite normal and good for Ben. He wanted to be like his dad and grandfather, serving the people of Nome as a medical doctor. “It has really been a life-long dream of mine to grow up, graduate high school, go away to school and return to serve the region as a family physician when I am done,” Ben Head said. “Nome was a wonderful place to grow up, was great to me all through my post-secondary education and where I planned to raise my children and grow old.”
That was the plan and Ben Head executed it to the T until it hit a snag. He graduated from Brigham Young University, Idaho in 2011 with a degree in Biology and an emphasis in Human Biology. He graduated from medical school at the University of Washington School of Medicine in 2015 and has since been training at a three-year family medicine residency program in Duluth, Minnesota. He is to graduate on June 30 of this year. Last year, he worked at NSHC as a resident for a month. This confirmed his wish to come back to Nome and work here. “Not only did I love being back in Nome and experiencing everything the summer had to offer, but I also was really enjoying the job and especially the other physicians and nurses I was working with, seeing old friends working in dental, security, the cafeteria, patient travel, EVS and more. I was home and it felt perfect,” Ben Head said.
So he asked for a contract, was told he needed to fill out an application first and did so in July. After several months, NSHC scheduled a phone interview with Dr. Ben Head, which was held on Oct. 27. According to Ben Head he was interviewed by Human Resources director Kirsten Timbers, CEO/President Angie Gorn, with general counsel John Kitchens and medical staff member Dr. Paul Gloe present. According to Head, Gorn and Timbers asked questions consistent with normal job interviews, relating to background, education and experience and how he would handle certain situations under pressure. But then the interview turned to a subject that has nothing to do with his qualifications.
According to Ben Head, Angie Gorn stated that NSHC has financially supported him through medical school and that she was disappointed that he would post comments on Karen O’Neill’s GoFundMe site, which was set up by a friend of Dr. O’Neill and asked for donations for O’Neill’s medical needs. Ben Head donated $50 and posted, “Thank you, Karen, for all your support throughout the years. Put this small token of my gratitude toward your attorneys fees and keep up the good fight.”
According to Head, Gorn stated that these comments are public and that it lacked judgment from someone who NSHC gave so much money to.
The 40-minute interview then ended.
In a letter dated Nov. 27, Gorn thanked Ben for the interview and said that based on the interview, “we will not be offering you a contract to work for NSHC in any status (permanent, locum, intermittent, or relief). We wish you good luck in your future endeavors.”
Head had sent out 11 applications to other hospitals and received favorable responses. He graduated in the top 10 percent of his undergraduate class, attended University of Washington Medical School, which has been ranked the number one primary care medical school in the nation every year for over 20 years, and the Duluth Family Medicine Residency Program is well-known nationwide for being one of the premiere residency programs for training rural family medicine doctors.
Qualification was hardly the issue.
When asked about NSHC’s contributions to his education, Head said it was a significant amount. “$1,000-2,000 a year through college and then two larger one-time sums to help with medical school tuition,” Head responded. “My tuition in college was about $3,000 a year. My tuition in medical school was about $50,000 per year. Most new physicians come out of school with over a quarter million dollars in debt. I am one of them.”
Asked if he had been aware of the turbulence at NSHC that started with the accusations against Dr. O’Neill, and lead to a series of firings, he responded, “I was aware of the suspension of Dr. O’Neill and some of the circumstances surrounding that and other firings at the corporation.
“I knew if I went there I would be entering a very hostile environment, but I had given my word to the people of Nome when I graduated high school that I would return. I renewed that promise every time I applied for a continuing scholarship from the region when I checked the box that stated I planned on returning to the Bering Strait Region after school, and I had given my word to NSHC that in return for their financial support, I would return to work for them. But as I have stated before, my returning to Nome was much more than just fulfilling a promise made. It was a dream I had not only looked forward to but also worked toward nearly my entire life. The events that have unfolded at NSHC over the last year have been some of the most devastating of my life.”