Lawmakers could get involved in hospital dispute, commissioner said he recorded “discriminatory” comments

A state senator predicts the Alabama legislature will reconsider diluting the power of a board that oversees Southeast Health Medical Center.
Updated: Sep. 30, 2023 at 8:00 AM CDT
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A state senator predicts the Alabama legislature will reconsider diluting the power of a board that oversees Southeast Health Medical Center and its affiliated medical care network.

The House passed a 2022 bill that would have stripped the Houston County Healthcare Authority of power. However, the Senate essentially killed the bill by never voting on it. State Senator Donnie Chesteen said it was because lawmakers believed Authority members and county commissioners would resolve their dispute.

“It appears now that is not the case, and we’ll have to see where we go from here,” Chesteen (R-Geneva) said Thursday.

The nagging issue centers on the appointment process. Commissioners choose all but one of the 13-member board. Still, their choices under the law are limited to one of three nominations for each seat supplied by current members of the Authority, a process that Commissioner Ricky Herring (District 3) calls a fox guarding the hen house.

Chesteen said he had assurances last year that the commissioners would have an increased say in their choices but doesn’t believe things turned out that way.

However, the feud flamed higher last week when Herring accused Authority Chairman Chester Sowell of derogatory remarks about a Dothan doctor whom Herring wanted to appoint.

Sowell questioned Dr. Kelsey Steensland’s ability to serve, referring to her as a “girl” with a “boatload of children.” Steensland and her husband, Houston County Circuit Judge “John-John” Steensland, are parents to six.

Related: Healthcare chairman calls doctor a “girl” with “boatload of children”, commissioner claims

Herring said he could prove the comments he characterized as “misogynistic and discriminatory” because he recorded the conversation with Sowell when they met several weeks ago.

“In general, I do not record meetings with people unless I feel that my integrity, character, and representation of the voting citizens of District 3 might be questioned,” Herring said. “When I’m backed into a corner, I will have the proof.”

Sowell said he respects Dr. Steensland, who issued a statement criticizing his comments, which, if true, insulted her as a woman and mother.

Related: Dothan doctor would be “disappointed” if comments were made about her

Though Herring has suggested that Sowell step down and accused him of violating the law by choosing himself for reappointment, the Authority chairman has not hinted of resignation.

Because Herring will not reappoint him or the two other nominees supplied by the Authority, Sowell will serve past the end of his term this weekend. That is also a law.

“We will continue to follow the laws as they are written and when the laws are changed, we will continue to abide by those as well,” Sowell said in response to Chesteen’s comments about legislation that could strip the Healthcare Authority’s power.

The hospital did not respond directly to the senator’s prediction for the next legislative session.

“The Southeast Health team is focused on delivering on our mission and will not provide further comments on this topic at this time,” it said in a prepared statement.

Read Commissioner Herring’s complete statement below:

As a law enforcement officer and an investigator, I use facts to build cases. I have taken that same approach in regard to this issue of board appointments. This is not an attempt to take control over appointments but rather to ensure collaboration and the inclusion of the commissioner’s nominee for appointment. With the method that is currently in place, the healthcare authority doesn’t have to entertain anyone presented. I know this because it has happened to me.

It is a shame what is taking place with our community hospital board. I have been told by board members "We are too powerful", "Leave us alone we like the way it is", and I have been taunted at an event. Their legal counsel advised, "That they only come to the Commission as a courtesy and that they don't have to." During the last board appointment process, Chester Sowell advised that he was not going to remain on the board when his appointment came up for reappointment. That comment was made after he was told that I was not going to reappoint him.

I am telling you this because I have a recorded conversation between Chester Sowell and me in reference to the statements that were made. When I am backed into a corner and you are trying to force me to do something, I will have the proof, just as I do for juries in the courts. Chester did not "Confer", which means shared ideas, with me during the appointment process. He represented himself in his appointment process. This is not right. In General, I do not record meetings with people unless I feel that my integrity, character, and representation of the voting citizens of District 3 might be questioned. During this appointment time and the last appointment time with Southeast Health Board, I have covered my "Six", which means, watch your back.

The commissioner represents the voters. The voters hold the commissioners accountable for their actions. The commissioner has no say in who they appoint, except from the list of three names presented to them by the hospital board. This Hospital Board appointment is the most important appointment that we make as a Commissioner. As for District 3 of Houston County, I would like to know if any of the District 3 board appointees or if the 3 names on this current list to choose from have the Medical knowledge and employee knowledge that Dr. Steensland has. She understands what the boots on the ground deal with and she

understands how patient care should work. I have a method for the choices I am making for the board. The Hospital has 3 important parts to its foundation. You have to have someone that represents the business side of it, which is William "Brownie" Browning, you have to have someone that represents the financial side of it, which is Steve Hicks, and you have to have someone that represents the employees, and medical side of it, which should be Dr. Steensland. I have the business side and financial side covered, but I need someone who understands medical.

Dr. Steensland should have been put on the list of three names. The comments that Chester Sowell made were not taken out of context. The comments about her were misogynistic and discriminatory.

Ricky Herring Houston County Commissioner, District 3

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