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UI Hospitals' Eavesdropping Allegations Spark PR Fiasco

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media, March 21, 2011

“It reflects lack of transparency that’s prevalent in the culture here that currently exists. It probably would have been a lot easier to stomach if they had just come out and said ‘we screwed up,’” Stellmach says. “Being a mailman, I’ve had tons of doctors and nurses and research staff and all of us regular employees say ‘wink, wink, nod, nod. We know what happened and what they are doing.’”

Stellmach says he was told that the supervisor had planted the monitor after another employee had complained that her colleagues were “talking too much.” The union rep says he was told the office manager was concerned that the workers were talking about patients, and that their comments could have run afoul of HIPAA. It turns out that was not the case, he says.

The baby monitor fiasco marks the second time in 10 months that UI’s HR department has been involved in a public relations debacle, which is particularly unusual in the staid and conservative world of healthcare HR.

In May 2010, Chad D. Simmons abruptly quit as the top HR officer at the health system after just 16 months on the job. The Associated Press reported that Simmons -- a former Kraft Foods executive -- was recruited in January 2009 after a national search, despite his lack of experience in healthcare or academia HR administration. No explanation for Simmons departure was given, but he took with him a $450,000 severance package – this after the university paid consulting firm Witt/Kieffer more than $109,000 to recruit him, AP said.

UI apparently learned from that debacle, and formed a 16-member search committee of executives, physicians, union representatives, and staff to find a replacement, Jana R. Wessels, who took over as associate vice president for UI Health Care Human Resources on March 1. In fairness to Wessels, she can’t be blamed for either the Simmons hiring or the baby monitoring fiasco. But, she’s in charge now – this happened on her watch -- and she is the one who will have to deal with the fallout.

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