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Besieged hospital on edge of Navajo Nation fires CEO, asks for unity

SANTA FE – The board of a rural New Mexico hospital that was hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic fired its 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 serve on the board of trustees.

Medical staff from Rehoboth McKinley Christian Hospital hold a protest over working conditions and depleted staff in Gallup, N.M. on May 8. (Morgan Lee/Associated Press)

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, not only with the coronavirus issues, but (also) 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.