The five elected directors of the Maricopa Integrated Health System toil in unpaid anonymity. Yet their actions will determine the future of Arizona's only public hospital at a critical time.
And that's not hyperbole: The Maricopa Medical Center is struggling to keep its accreditation, yet one slate of candidates running wants to put the district on an extreme diet. Republican bigwigs paint this as an issue of fiscal responsibility, but to me, it looks instead like one of those penny-wise, pound-foolish nightmares.
At a time when emergency rooms across the state are packed, cutting services at the county hospital would surely result in catastrophe.
And even though you probably have no idea what's at stake, insiders are buzzing. Three former state legislators, as well as the former directors of both the county and the state health departments, have thrown their hats into the ring. Rob Carey, best known as Grant Woods' top aide during Woods' tenure as attorney general, is also a candidate — and prominent GOP lobbyist Stan Barnes is actually running his executive assistant for a seat. Even Sheriff Joe Arpaio is making a cameo: He's made robo-calls and has been the guest of honor for at least one fundraiser.
As it turns out, most of the big names are lined up to stop the Republican-sponsored slate. Believe it or not, even the big Republican names are lined up to stop the Republican slate. That's how out of touch the party has become.
The health district race is actually one of the weirdest, most chaotic ones we'll have this fall. And that's why I'm so worried.
Is anyone out there paying enough attention to this circus to know what they're voting for?
Four years ago, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors spun off its neglected hospital district, making it a standalone entity rather than just another program under the supervisors' wing. County voters then elected a five-member panel to run it.
Overall, the panel has done a good job shoring up the district's financials, and the hospital is now in much better shape than it was when the Supes handed it off.
We could undo that with this election.
I first started paying attention to this race when I learned that Sheriff Joe and his evil little Igor, County Attorney Andrew Thomas, had endorsed some candidates for it. That seemed odd.
Then I read in the Arizona Republic that the Maricopa County Republican Party had endorsed a slate of five candidates without bothering to send out questionnaires or contact the Republican incumbents. As the Republic noted, two respected former GOP state legislators, Sue Gerard and Greg Patterson, also were running, yet the party hadn't bothered to contact them, either.
I don't know either of the two board members running for re-election. But I do know that Gerard and Patterson are not candidates to be taken lightly. Patterson writes the most influential blog in town, www.espressopundit.com. And Sue Gerard is the former director of the state health department — as well as that rare politician who's respected across the partisan divide. Gerard tangled with Governor Janet Napolitano while running the health department and ultimately resigned from her post, but you still can't find anyone in town who has a bad word to say about her. By all accounts, she's a straight shooter and a real professional.
So why would the GOP endorse a slate without even talking to Gerard or Patterson? It made no sense to me.
That's when I found out about Mike Albertson.
Albertson isn't on the ballot, though he might as well be. A GOP activist who's donated more than $4,000 to Republican causes in the past two years, he's shepherded this Republican "slate" through the details of running for office . . . and helped secure those party endorsements, too.
Albertson says he got involved because the county Republican Party wanted to make sure it had a candidate in every race. "I don't have any interest in the hospital," he insisted. "The issue is, you've got to get good people running boards."
But the truth is more complicated.
Albertson isn't just a party loyalist. He's also a former hospital executive — most recently at Sun Health — and current hospital consultant. In November, his two-person consulting firm bid on a $60,000 contract for the health district. When they didn't get it, Albertson lodged a formal protest.
Albertson insists that his failed bid has nothing to do with his interest in the healthcare district. But an e-mail Albertson sent to his slate of candidates in January raises serious questions about whether he really wants to help the medical center or destroy it.
The e-mail, with a subject line of "good story," linked to a recent New York Times story about hard times at the public hospital in Atlanta. As the Times reported, that city's safety net hospital has fallen into "financial crisis."