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DOH shushes E.J. Noble

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GOUVERNEUR — The state Department of Health has asked E.J. Noble Hospital officials not to answer all questions from the press without contacting its public affairs office first.

“It’s not a gag order,” Health Department spokesman Bill Schwarz said. “One hundred percent of my point is to say information is better addressed by the Department of Health about our policies and if you’re going to respond to these topics, it’s vital they speak with the Department of Health first to be sure it’s accurate and that time lines are clear. I have no authority to suggest a gag order on any institution. We’re trying to have an effective collaboration between the hospital and the department to provide good communication to the public.”

The message did not get through clearly enough to E.J. Noble board Chairman Timothy J. Monroe. When asked Sunday if there was an update on the hospital’s situation, Dr. Monroe, a veterinarian, said Mr. Schwarz had asked hospital officials to contact him before answering any questions.

“I’m defiant, but it’s important for the hospital to reopen; I’m going to do what the Health Department asked,” Dr. Monroe said. “I don’t want to do anything that’s going to slow the reopening.”

The Health Department closed E.J. Noble’s lab Sept. 28, which prompted a shutdown of its acute care services, including inpatient care, surgeries and the emergency room. On Friday, the hospital submitted proposals to the Health Department from both Samaritan Medical Center, Watertown, and Canton-Potsdam Hospital, Potsdam, on possible lab supervision along with a corrective plan addressing deficiencies.

When asked whether the Health Department had told the hospital not to speak to the press, Administrator Charles P. Conole first said that interpretation was incorrect.

In a second phone call, he said he was not aware of any directive from the Health Department.

A Friday email from Mr. Schwarz to Mr. Conole lays out the department’s request.

“I’m writing to let you know DOH continues to receive and respond to numerous media inquiries, and — most importantly — to reiterate clearly DOH’s request that prior to responding to ANY press inquiries, any/all hospital board members, staff, volunteers are to contact me,” Mr. Schwarz wrote. “It is critical, as this process continues — plan of correction submission, DOH review, etc. — that communications are thoroughly vetted, coordinated and managed.”

When questioned about the email in a third telephone conversation Sunday, Mr. Conole said the memo was internal.

“I didn’t think it was my prerogative to tell you that,” he said. “The source and content just startled me. I’m supposed to answer that right away ... boom, boom, boom?”

Mr. Conole said he did not think the Health Department was demanding to have all questions referred to it before an answer was allowed.

“I think it depends on your interpretation,” he said.

Mr. Schwarz said the email followed up on earlier talks he had with Mr. Conole about making sure the public was properly informed.

“Perhaps I could have been more specific, but it was based on previous conversations,” Mr. Schwarz said. “It was just reaching out to Chuck Conole. I’ve never had any conversations with the board chair. Our intent is to work collaboratively. It was really in the spirit of cooperation.”

Mr. Schwarz said he was trying to avoid a situation where someone from the hospital provided incorrect information about a possible reopening of E.J. Noble.

“For consistency and accuracy so people understand what our role is, they shouldn’t speak for the Department of Health,” he said. “That’s my point.”

Mr. Conole also revised information he had provided about the employee whose mistakes prompted the Health Department to close the lab. Earlier, he had said she was not involved in the reopening of the lab.

On Sunday, he said she was working on policies and procedures along with quality assurance issues.

“It is issues she is finishing up in the lab. It all relates to the corrective action plan because if this had been done before, we wouldn’t have needed a corrective action plan,” Mr. Conole said.

Mr. Schwarz said the Health Department already has begun its review of how lab supervision at E.J. Noble by a neighboring hospital will work along with the hospital’s plan of corrections.

“I don’t know an average time line for that, but we’ve been working closely with the hospital,” he said. “We’ll do it absolutely as soon as possible.”

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