Crowd turns out to denounce firing

November 13, 2013 01:07 pm

About 30 people turn out for South County Health District board meeting Tuesday night

UNION — In a heated meeting of the South County Health District board Tuesday night, it was clear that Nurse Practitioner Sue Peeples is beloved by many of her patients.

What never became clear was the reason for her abrupt firing from her job at the Union Family Health Center in mid-October. 

About 30 people jammed into the clinic conference room to voice support for Peeples, who helped found the clinic almost 20 years ago and had worked there ever since. Those who spoke during the public comment period had nothing but good things to say about her, and many comments were followed by general applause.

One person offering testimony was Sherryl Barrett, who said she has been treated by Peeples for years, and knows the nurse practitioner as someone she can trust. Barrett expressed dismay at the firing.

“This isn’t right. This lady should still be here taking care of me and all of you,” she said.

The Union clinic has a history dating back to the mid-1990s, when Peeples and fellow Nurse Practitioner Margaurite Pike opened it in rented space in a building owned by the City of Union.

The endeavor was made possible with help from the Cove-Union-Powder Medical Association, a group of volunteers known locally as CUP and dedicated to providing medical care for local residents.

In 2000, a new building was constructed for the clinic at the corner of Main and Dearborn streets. By then, Oregon Health and Sciences University had become the care provider, furnishing clinic equipment and supplies and paying wages.

That arrangement came to an end in 2009, as OHSU withdrew its support because of financial reasons. In May of that year, voters approved formation of the South County Health District, which operates the clinic today, without taxpayer support. The district has yet to take a tax levy to the voters.

Pike was another person making comments during Tuesday night’s board meeting. Like several others, she said she was upset with the fact that patients being treated by Peeples were never notified of the change.

“I’m hearing that people called the clinic and asked for her and were told, ‘She’s not here today,’ not that she left,” Pike said. “I think not paying attention to the patients and community needs is not right and it’s going to backfire.”

At the start of Tuesday’s public comment period, acting Board Chair Karen Wing told the crowd that the board was happy to hear comments but could not answer any questions about the firing because of legal reasons.

Praise for the nurse practitioner was unanimous. One woman reading from a prepared statement said that seeing a clinic open in Union was a “big surprise and a huge blessing.”

“Sue was my health care provider from the beginning,” the woman said. “She always listened and never dismissed my concerns. It was a shock to find out she will no longer be able to take care of me. The way this situation was dealt with was not in a good way.”

Some of the public comment was tinged with anger. 

Union resident Tony Thomas said a group of his friends asked him to attend the meeting and report back. He said his friends were ready to switch health care providers if the firing was allowed to stand.

“They say they’ll go someplace else if that woman right there is leaving. And that’s a fact,” Thomas said as he pointed to Peeples.

Peeples spoke only briefly during the meeting, saying she had not come with the hope of getting her job back, but to express that she cares about the clinic and wants it to survive.

Outside after the meeting, Peeples said she could not comment on the specific reason for her firing. She did say that she was called into a conference with clinic management Oct. 16 and formally reprimanded. The next day, she was fired, she said.

She added that the grievance brought against her was not true, and that she is considering legal action.

The crowd left after the public comment period, and the board and turned its attention to regular business. During that portion of the meeting, it was reported that Peeples’ caseload will be split up among clinic staff until a replacement is hired.

The board decided that it would be best to hire a temporary replacement, then mount a search for a permanent one.

During discussion, Wing said she agreed with people who said the board should have done a better job communicating with patients regarding Peeples’ dismissal.

“I do think it would be a good idea to send a letter to Sue’s patients and explain that she’s not working here anymore,” Wing said.

Approached as the meeting adjourned, Wing refused to answer any questions, even a general one about the procedure the district follows in firing employees.