Besieged hospital on edge of Navajo Nation fires CEO

In this May 7, 2020, photo, medical staff from Rehoboth McKinley Christian Hospital put on protective equipment as they work at a drive-thru coronavirus testing site outside the hospital in Gallup, N.M. Of about 500 medical and support staff, at least 32 hospital workers have become infected, and doctors and nurses say that they all live with the fear of spreading the virus to their colleagues and relatives. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)

Santa Fe N.M. • The board of a rural New Mexico hospital that was hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic fired the chief executive Thursday and asked for unity in a bid to restore confidence in the facility.

A memo sent to staff at Rehoboth McKinley Christian Hospital in Gallup said CEO David Conejo’s termination was effective immediately and a search would begin soon for his replacement. Chief Financial Officer Mary Bevier stepped in as interim CEO. Conejo also will no longer will serve on the board of trustees.

The hospital laid off nurses in March as a cost-saving measure only to be overwhelmed by a surge in coronavirus infections, including from the neighboring Navajo Nation, which has been hit hard by the virus.

Dozens of hospital staff contracted the virus as doctors and nurses scrambled to attend to critically ill COVID-19 patients, eventually opting to transfer patients with severe respiratory problems to health care facilities in Albuquerque.

Employees protested working conditions and unanswered questions about hospital finances near the height of local infections, calling on Conejo to resign.

Conejo did not respond immediately to phone calls Thursday. He has defended his handling of the pandemic and said decisions on staffing and medical care were not his alone.

“We wish to honor the dedication and sacrifices that all of the staff have made in this very difficult recent past, with not only the coronavirus issues but the negative publicity that has caused some community members to lose confidence,” said the email from hospital management to staff.

Officials from McKinley County, which owns and leases the hospital to a private operator, grew frustrated trying to audit hospital finances and threatened in May to cut off property tax funding. State Auditor Brian Colón entered the fray in mid-May to negotiate the release of hospital financial documents.