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St. Charles CEO resigns amid financial difficulties for health system

St. Charles Medical Center in Bend
Kristian Foden-Vencil
St. Charles Medical Center in Bend

The head of Central Oregon’s only hospital system resigned Tuesday, following a turbulent time that has seen increased financial difficulty and mass layoffs at the hospital.

St. Charles Health System President and CEO Joe Sluka announced his resignation in a press release, saying years of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic had taken their toll. He has held the position since 2014, according to his LinkedIn profile.

“I feel it is time for me to step aside, recharge and provide the opportunity for new operational leaders to guide St. Charles forward,” Sluka said.

Dr. Steve Gordon, a former board member at St. Charles, will take over as CEO on an interim basis, as a nationwide search for a new executive begins.

Sluka will, however, remain at the health system in an advisory role to Gordon for an unspecified period of time. Spokesperson Lisa Goodman said Sluka will keep his current salary while serving in this role.

St. Charles did not make Sluka available for comment Tuesday.

The resignation comes during a challenging time for St. Charles. Financial difficulties led hospital leadership to lay off 105 caregivers and freeze an additional 76 positions in May, as the system faced an operating loss of $21.8 million this year through April.

Two weeks later, more than 300 providers announced plans to form a union called Central Oregon Providers Network. Hospital executives have said the layoffs came as a result of the pandemic, but union organizers have claimed financial mismanagement at the hospital stretches back before COVID-19.

The union issued a statement Tuesday noting St. Charles had asked the National Labor Relations Board to dismiss its petition for an election.

Les Dixon, a St. Charles employee and member of the Central Oregon Providers Network, said he hopes Sluka’s resignation is a sign that communications between the board and the union will improve in the future.

Sluka’s tenure also saw technical workers at St. Charles settle on a union contract in 2021, shortly after announcing a strike.

The health system is Central Oregon’s largest employer and a major economic center for the region.

St. Charles Board Chairman Jamie Orlikoff said in a Tuesday phone interview that Sluka resigned on his own accord, not at the board’s urging. He added the resignation did not come as a result of the ongoing financial issues facing St. Charles.

He said hospital executives, similar to frontline health care workers, are facing challenges related to burnout.

“If Joe wanted to stay, he’d be the leader,” Orlikoff said. “No one is happy anywhere in health care.”

The leadership transition in the health system — as well as the nationwide search — begins this week.

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Joni Land