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Symptom of silence still prevalent at Brooks

OBSERVER Photo Transparency by the Brooks Memorial Hospital board of directors came to an end in 2008.

It was an unusual voice mail message, but not unexpected. J. Gary Rhodes, former interim chief executive officer at Brooks Memorial Hospital in Dunkirk, was disappointed with our continuing coverage in 2014 about the mounting deficits and job layoffs at the institution in a changing health-care dynamic.

His message, in the phone recording, was simply this: “You’re playing into the wrong hands.”

He had a right to be upset and frustrated. Brooks’ employees had been reaching out to the OBSERVER while others were leaking memos from the administration indicating just how tough a working environment it was in 2014 and 2015.

But the administration, other than a snarky voice mail, remained silent. It did not respond to questions or phone calls.

Since then, changes have continued. At this point, it is unclear if they are for the better.

During Rhodes’ reign, in which he served at the facility for two days a week, the hospital’s management was being overseen by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Rhodes’ other three-day a week job was at Kane, Pa., Community Hospital — another UPMC affiliate — where he also served in the same capacity.

His departure from Dunkirk came in early 2016 when New York state announced $57 million for a new state-of-art hospital that would relocate from its current site at Sixth Street and Central Avenue. Additionally, Kaleida Health was coming aboard to assist Brooks and TLC Health with its partnership moving forward.

Almost unexpectedly, the transition brought a spark of hope. There was lots to get done — and the state wanted it completed in a hurry.

Just the opposite has happened in almost four years. Everything has come to a screeching halt. There’s no new facility. There are no shovels in the ground.

Worse yet, there continues to be little communication with the community.

As this newspaper has consistently reported, the wheels have been coming off at Brooks for at least 12 years. Yes, health care is changing every day. But it appears our city facility just cannot keep up or evolve with it.

Mary E. LaRowe, current president and chief executive officer at Brooks, has been helpful and responds to inquiries from this newspaper on a regular basis. But the fact remains that true transparency for the institution ended in 2008, when the board of directors held its final public annual meeting at the Clarion Hotel in Dunkirk.

That’s when Chris Lanski was named president of the board. Maybe it is his fault — or he is being given bad advice — for all the behind-the-scenes decision making.

How quiet is Brooks Memorial Hospital currently? Look no further than its Internal Revenue Service 990 reports. Online, Guidestar.com provides access to that information. It is an open book to financial documents for non-profits.

On that site, the last Brooks filing is from 2016 — more than three years ago. Something — on appearances alone — seems wrong.

Area leaders also are concerned. Fredonia Mayor Athanasia Landis last month said she is “horrified” by the lack of progress for a new hospital at the former Cornell Cooperative Extension site.

Brooks and Kaleida, however, remain tight lipped. It is a lot like how the old regime — when led by Rhodes — would answer our questions.

“You’re trying to make a story where there isn’t one. This is nothing exceptional or unusual and it’s just normal everyday business.”

Rhodes did not get it then and the administrators and board of directors do not seem to get it today. This is a community institution. Inside, there are plaques highlighting residents and businesses who have given quite generously in the past to support the health care happening inside those walls.

Today, more than ever, we are all on the outside looking in while huge decisions made in private are affecting health care for years to come in this region.

John D’Agostino is the OBSERVER publisher. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 401.

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