NEWPORT - Nearly 300 people turned out for a meeting Wednesday evening to discuss concerns relating to the termination of oncologist Dr. Leslie Lockridge from North Country Hospital. The meeting was held at the Newport Municipal Building, where the hospital's CEO, Claudio Fort, and members of the board of directors took center stage at the front of the room.
Nearly everyone there expressed strong support for Lockridge and outrage that he is losing his job.
The hospital plans to cover the loss with two visiting doctors from Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire. The visiting doctors would come up to the hospital twice a week.
Fort faced critical words and questions about the decision. Fort didn't say much but noted that the hospital is private and does not disclose details of its finances. Fort said the change would save the hospital $100,000 a year. He also said that this small area can't support a full-time oncologist. Hospital Director Kathy Austin said the hospital must have a bottom line in order to exist. She also said the hospital is feeling the squeeze with changes in healthcare and noted that reimbursement is not dollar for dollar.
This did not appease the crowd; it only seemed to upset them more. Many questioned why money couldn’t be saved elsewhere.
Fort said that two part-time doctors would give patients a choice, but several said they were happy with Lockridge and could go elsewhere to find a choice. “We already have the best,” one woman said.
Some said that it seems there is more concern over money than community health needs.
Most of the people who stood to speak said that the patient's relationship with the oncologist is very important and that it is not possible to understand what the patients are going through without personal experience. Many also expressed concerns about forming relationships with new doctors from New Hampshire who would not be here daily.
Kristi Wheeler stood and said that she is currently a patient of Lockridge. “My fight is now.” She said the relationship with the doctor is like no other and talked about the "hell" of living with cancer.
She said Lockridge has encouraged her to keep living life as much as possible. “Unless you have cancer, no one can understand.”
“It’s not a part-time disease. You need a full time oncologist,” Lynn Leimer-Flint said. She received a standing ovation.
Psychologist Doug Flint said that he sees some cancer patients and said that the relationship with the doctor is “so critical.”
Others said that the hospital's reputation is now good, especially compared to what is used to be, and losing Lockridge would be moving backwards. It would damage the hospital's reputation as well as the community.
“We don’t want to ruin our reputation by firing one of the best doctors we have,” said Senator Bobby Starr of North Tory, who also received a standing ovation. Addressing the board of directors he said that there is always a way to fix the finances.
“I don’t believe our community wants our money going to New Hampshire,” said David Smith of North Troy.
Chesley Stone, another patient of Lockridge, spoke critically about the hospital’s spending. She said the hospital spent millions on a new computer system, and she questioned personnel matters including compensation. She also questioned Fort’s ability as the hospital’s administrator.
Austin tried vigorously to quiet Stone and said the comments were inappropriate for the meeting, but Stone continued. Fort did not respond only to say that several of the statements she made were inaccurate.
Some asked if the decision was political, but Fort denied the accusation.
Dr. Mike (Thomas) Moseley suggested that Lockridge explore other options including opening his own clinic. He also encouraged the people present to “lighten up.” “I support the integrity of the people up there,” he added.
But Lockridge said he did not have the financial means to open his own private clinic.
Lockridge, in an interview Thursday, said he was told of the decision on Jan. 5. He said he was never asked to negotiate his position.
Lockridge sent a letter to the board of directors stating that he wants to continue to care for his patients and is open to negotiating. Lockridge said he heard back from Austin, who said yes to having a discussion, but since Wednesday’s meeting, Lockridge hadn’t heard from any of the directors or Fort.
Asked if he had ever received any disciplinary action while working at the hospital, Lockridge responded never. “I just want to keep seeing the patients I love in the community I love.”