Jennifer Riley hears your anger
The newly appointed interim CEO of Memorial Regional Health is not ignorant to the community’s vocal frustration with its hospital, but she’s prepared to work toward healing
There are a lot of questions worth asking Jennifer Riley.
One of them, though, gets a bit personal: Why would you do this to yourself?
Riley, who was appointed the interim CEO of Memorial Regional Health at a Thursday evening meeting of the Board of Trustees, steps into the place held for the last several years by Andy Daniels. Daniels, who submitted his resignation last week and will transition out of the position through Jan. 14, 2022, has presided over a rocky period in the oft-embattled hospital’s recent history.
Now Riley’s hands are on the reigns — whether temporarily or more permanently is yet to be determined, but they’re hers for now — and the circumstances are the same.
So why would the former Chief Operating Officer for the hospital, who’s been the target of nearly the same volume of assault of negative community opinion toward hospital administration as Daniels has, voluntarily step to the front of the line of fire and take on this position?
“It’s exciting,” Riley said. “And terrifying, honestly. It is. And the reality is no CEO lasts forever and ever. I’m 48, 49 (years old) next month, and to step up and say I want to be a leader of an organization, that puts a clock on my career. I’d love to be here 20 years, but that’s unrealistic. It’s not the way these jobs really go.”
That said, while this isn’t necessarily a dream come true for Riley — she says when she came home to Craig in 2001, she never envisioned getting into hospital administration — this feels somehow right to the deep-rooted Moffat County resident.
“My family goes back generations in this community,” Riley said. “Mom’s family homesteaded in the early 1900s. Great grandma and great-great grandma were Moffat County Clerk and Recorder. Dad was a public school teacher and administrator for 40 years. I’m from a long line of people committed to this community.”
That doesn’t mean she thinks she deserves this. But it does mean she wants it and is ready to serve.
“I want to be successful, for the hospital to be successful, because I want to be here,” Riley said. “I don’t get to do this because my family is from here. But I want to be here. I’m not taking this role today so then in a year I can take a different job. That’s not what I want. I want to be here — my parents are here, my daughter is here, our grandson will be here in December. I want this, but it doesn’t mean I’m entitled to this job.”
Unfortunately for Riley — or unfortunately for her own ego, maybe — she’s not the only one who doesn’t think she’s entitled to the job. Facebook isn’t an accurate representation of the community, but there were still a large number of people putting their names on extremely aggressive social media statements about Riley being appointed the interim CEO when that announcement was made late last week.
The general tenor of the angst over her elevation to the role: More of the same.
Riley hears it. Her family hears it. It’s not news to her that there are members of the community who hate the way the hospital has been run lately and attribute most of those decisions to an administration of which Riley has been a key member.
She’s human, but she also sees this as about more than just her feelings.
“Any time the hospital administration is making decisions, there’s always a very personal element involved,” Riley said. “When administration made the announcement we were closing OB, that’s a really personal thing that affects a lot of people — people we know. People working in the department or doctoring with those doctors, people planning to have babies. It’s personal — their future plans are changing. I understand those decisions are not taken well.”
But, she said, they are decisions that have to be made.
“We have to move forward knowing the decision is what we think is right even if it’s going to be upsetting, and it’s personal, and it hurts,” she said. “In a community this close-knit, we know the people who it hurts. I mean, my daughter is having a baby in December. It won’t be at MRH. That hurts.”
In the case of Obstetrics, the numbers didn’t make sense from any perspective, Riley said — financial and otherwise. Not only was it losing money, which could compromise other services that were more heavily utilized and relied-upon, it was not a large enough workload to keep baby-delivering medical staff sharp in the discipline.
“Babies is not an area you can do pretty good,” Riley said. “We didn’t have the volume to keep our people competent and confident. The numbers of babies we delivered — about 160 at the most in a year — spread that out across three providers, if it’s equal that’s 50 to 60 babies a year, and so you’re only delivering a baby every three days. Nurses could work several shifts and not deliver a baby. If it all goes great, that’s great, but those situations that are difficult get scary quickly. We need to have competency, and that’s a tough pill to swallow.”
But that’s just a microcosm of the much larger issue of rural hospital administration.
It’s ugly to shut down a department because it’s not making money. Riley knows it. Daniels knew it. Nobody thinks that decision is going to be a winner with the community. But reality is what it is, and the business side of the equation has to work for the hospital to keep its many lights on, Riley said.
“It’s a hard job,” Riley said. “You are always hearing the feedback — good or bad — and trying to balance public opinion with running a business and employing a whole lot of people who are really dedicated as well.”
Riley isn’t distancing herself from her predecessor — she went to great lengths to emphasize all the good she saw Daniels accomplish in his time as CEO and is not one to criticize her longtime immediate superior, even on his way out. But if that’s the case, are the angry Facebook commenters right to expect more of the same?
Should the community anticipate change?
“I hope so,” Riley said. “I’ve been talking a lot with the administrative team, and one of the very first things I want to do, and they want, too, is have a community meeting. We’ll invite people to come and share feedback. I want it in person and open to the public. People can come, share, and we’ll listen. We may not be able to respond to all the community criticism online, but if people feel strongly, they can come.”
Communication, transparency, information — all are key, Riley said. Maybe that’s not revolutionary. She certainly doesn’t think so, but she’s going to make it a priority. Healing the rift with the community is critical, Riley said.
Also critical is re-engaging the hospital staff. Between COVID-19, vaccine mandates and other dramatic stressors, the relationship in some corners of the hospital between administration and staff is not where Riley feels it needs to be.
“We need to be present for staff,” she said. “It’s not that Andy didn’t do that, but we’ll hopefully carry forward that and put a lot of energy and focus into staff. That’s truly our most critical resource, our staffing. And that’s what keeps me up at night — worrying about them, worrying about them feeling they have support to do their jobs, and if they don’t wondering how do we put that in place.”
Riley may only have a few months — the search process by the board of trustees is expected to take at least four, maybe six months or more — but, as she actively works to earn the permanent position, she’s not going to be doing anything more than she’d be doing if she held the title already.
So why do this? Because, as Riley said before, this is where she wants to be.
“It’s exciting because I get to implement things and a leadership team that I think will be great for our organization,” Riley said. “But it’s terrifying, too, because we’re on the precipice of a workforce implosion. Healthcare anywhere is tenuous, but rural healthcare — you can’t run a hospital without staff.”
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