Kan. county manager focuses on shortage, wages after EMS head removed

Sedgwick County's Tom Stolz apologized for the delay in responding to EMS employees' concerns about the medical director


Chance Swaim and Michael Stavola
The Wichita Eagle

WICHITA, Kan. — Sedgwick County Manager Tom Stolz removed Dr. John Gallagher from his role as EMS director on Wednesday following a Wichita Eagle investigation into slow response times and a staff revolt against Gallagher's leadership.

Stolz also apologized for the delay, saying he wished he would have been more proactive at communicating with EMS employees about their concerns with Gallagher.

"The specific decision to remove Dr. Gallagher as director also solely rests with me," he said. "I did so after much thought, investigation and proper due diligence. I apologize for what many saw as a delay in this matter, but it is important to me to be fair and to not succumb to newspaper and social media pressure or even pressure from individual commissioners."

Stolz announced his decision at the end of Wednesday's Sedgwick County Commission meeting after a one-hour executive session "for consultation regarding matters deemed privileged in the attorney-client relationship to discuss matters involving a departmental investigation and employee contractual matters."

Stolz said an interim director has not yet been named.

Along with Gallagher's ouster, Stolz said a series of other sweeping changes are needed to improve Sedgwick County EMS.

"As we move forward, there are still issues that need to be addressed within EMS and do not immediately dissolve with an interim director," Stolz said. "We still have a critical paramedic shortage. . . . We still need to address compensation as other communities quickly hire away our talent for better pay as we struggle to keep our local talent."

Since Gallagher's promotion to director in August 2019 — against the wishes of a majority of EMS staff — a third of the department has left, causing ambulance shutdowns and dangerously slow response times. This year, Sedgwick County EMS reached fewer than one in three patients within 9 minutes, a national standard for EMS response.

Stolz said the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the problem, making it more difficult to communicate in-person with EMS workers.

"In hindsight, I wish I would have proactively sent a survey or made some type of outreach to employees," he said. "That was a mistake on my part."

Stolz said the county will take the following steps to improve EMS service in the Wichita area:

  • Name an interim director as soon as possible
  • Separate EMS operations and the Office of the Medical Director
  • Promote Dr. Carolina Pereira, who turned in her resignation earlier this month, to medical director until September. During that time, the county would search for a contracted medical director to serve as a stopgap until the county stands up a competitive search for a permanent medical director.
  • Create an EMS Citizens Review and Advisory Board with members from various health professions — doctors, nurses, paramedics and EMTs — and community members.
  • Create a policy, to be presented to the County Commission, "which will enhance communications regarding complaints that employees may be having in the workplace for help and resolution," Stolz said.

"When the organization stabilizes, we will immediately begin a regional search for a new EMS director," Stolz said. "We will involve the medical and public safety community as well as EMS employees in this process."

Stolz apologized to the entire county for letting EMS reach a crisis point.

"To the citizens of this community, to EMS staff, and to this commission, I apologize for this concern in our public safety services. I feel it is my moral and ethical obligation to hear all sides in regards to the formal complaints made at the April meetings. I do not react to social media comments or newspaper allegations when it comes to these types of investigations, nor do I manage under mob rule. I will not react impulsively or emotionally to these types of matters."

After the commission meeting, Stolz told The Eagle he hopes paramedics who have quit the department will consider returning now that Gallagher is out. The department has 21 unfilled paramedic positions.

"I can't respect a profession any more than paramedics and police and fire," Stolz said. "If you're looking to really do something meaningful in your life — real, ground-level help — think about paramedicine. You are out truly helping the community, and I know we have a lot of people who have that frame of mind."

EMS director John Gallagher ousted

EMS employees called for Gallagher's removal at two closed-door town hall meetings in late April, spurring county leaders to order an external audit of EMS leadership and protocols by local law firm Hite, Fanning & Honeyman.

Calls for Gallagher's resignation came in April following Eagle reporting on his handling of a 2019 case involving a 31-year-old patient who had apparently shot himself in the head. The patient was five minutes away from the nearest hospital, but Gallagher refused to transport him for five hours, even though the man continued breathing and had a pulse.

Wednesday's decision was announced after Mary Arterburn, mother of retired Wichita Police Officer Brian Arterburn, addressed the Sedgwick County Commission, calling for swift action in response to the Eagle's recent series of stories showing the department's struggles under Gallagher.

"Please resolve this today because every second is vital in saving a life," she said.

Arterburn credited Sedgwick County EMS with saving her son's life in 2017 after he suffered extensive skull and brain damage when a drug dealer in an SUV ran over his head as he laid spike strips in the road. She said he has undergone several surgeries and years of physical therapy and is "able to live a life being content and happy as he can be. It's not like it used to be, but he is content."

She compared her son's emergency medical treatment to Gallagher's handling of the 2019 suicidal patient. Gallagher determined the patient was "unsalvageable" and ordered paramedics not to take the man to an emergency room. The man died in hospice care 10 1/2 hours after the shooting.

"I'm so grateful that Mr. Gallagher was not in charge at the time of Brian's incident," Arterburn said. "I feel like had Mr. Gallagher been in charge of my son's life . . . at that time, he would have said, 'Well, he won't have any chance of any kind of life being run over like that. Just wait and let him go.'"

The Kansas Board of EMS has proposed disciplinary action against the first responders who followed Gallagher's orders on the suicide call. It also asked the Kansas Board of Healing Arts to launch an investigation into Gallagher's actions as a physician.

Stolz placed Gallagher on paid administrative leave Monday.

Since Gallagher's promotion two years ago, 92 employees have left the roughly 200-person department, causing ambulance shutdowns and dangerously slow response time.

The 92 employees don't include Gallagher or Pereira, the deputy medical director who handed in her 90-day notice amid department turmoil earlier this month after 18 months on the job.

During the April town hall meetings, EMS employees also called on Stolz to remove Gallagher's executive staff, which includes Pereira and Paul Misasi. Employees accused Pereira of discriminating against them based on sex and retaliation and creating a toxic work environment. They didn't cite specific complaints against Misasi, deputy director of EMS, but they said he stood by as the department declined without speaking out.

On Monday, Stolz placed Misasi and Bill Robben, an EMS colonel, in charge of the department until an interim director is chosen.

Gallagher started as Sedgwick County's medical director in 2015 after coming from the same position at a private ambulance service in Winona, Minnesota, a town of around 27,000 people. Stolz promoted him in 2019 as part of a move to consolidate the Office of the Medical Director and Emergency Medical Services, making Sedgwick County EMS one of five physician-led departments in the nation.

Gallagher signed a 5-year, $1.1 million contract in December 2019. Removal without cause would require written notice 90 days in advance and about $111,000, or six months salary. He also works in the emergency rooms at Ascension Via Christi and Wesley Medical Center.

Wesley Medical Center spokesperson Dave Stewart said Wednesday morning Gallagher was still a physician there.

Gallagher's status could change based on the findings by the Kansas State Board of EMS or the Kansas Board of Healing Arts regarding his handling of the 2019 suicide call.

"There would definitely be probably a review process on our end, but that would be subsequent to the state board and other findings" such as the termination at Sedgwick County, Stewart said.

Ascension Via Christi, where Gallagher is also a physician, did not respond to multiple requests to comment.

No one immediately responded about his status from the Sedgwick County Medical Society, where Gallagher sits on a multiple committees, or the National Association of EMS Physicians, where Gallagher is a board member.

County commissioners support removal

Sedgwick County commissioners said they support Stolz's decision and remain confident in his leadership.

But an ongoing feud between Commissioner Jim Howell and the other Republicans on the commission escalated Wednesday, with Commission Chairman Pete Meitzner attempting to limit his speech and Commissioner David Dennis implying Howell is only interested in EMS because his daughter-in-law works for the department.

"You can do your best to address a couple of things," Meitzner told Howell. "But this is not going to be a back-and-forth deal today."

"With all due respect, Mr. Chairman, you're welcome to not stay if you don't want to," Howell said. "I'm going to stay here in front of the manager and media until I make my statement."

Howell, who has led the charge to oust Gallagher and address problems within EMS while facing significant pushback from the county manager and the other Republicans on the commission, said he agrees with the changes Stolz has proposed for EMS.

"That is good. I want to give you appreciation for doing that," Howell said.

"My greatest concern as we move forward, in what we look at in the future, is will another department be targeted next," Dennis said. "Will it be fire, 911, Comcare, the sheriff, aging, etc., or will it just be those departments that a commission has a relative working in?"

Howell responded that he doesn't get involved in county employees matters unless management fails to address it.

"I did receive a very worrisome letter from someone at 911, and I plan on discussing that with you. And if I have to get involved, I guess I don't want to but something needs to be investigated there as well."

Commissioners Lacey Cruse and Sarah Lopez said they appreciated Stolz taking ownership, but they want to focus on improving the EMS service.

"Now, we just have to take the right steps to move forward to get to where we want to be . . . I just hope that we can start building back trust with everyone," Lopez said.

"The only thing that matters is what we do to rebuild," Cruse said.

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(c)2021 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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