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Northwest Community CEO: Allegations against new CMO 'baseless'

Northwest Community Hospital CEO Bruce Crowther is taking steps to quell a budding controversy about his new chief medical officer, six months after the abrupt resignation of the Arlington Heights, Ill., institution's previous top doctor.

In an email on Friday to Northwest's doctors, Mr. Crowther said the 496-bed hospital has hired Dr. Eric Benink, currently chief medical officer at OSF St. Anthony Medical Center in Rockford. The ER specialist is expected to start his new job next month.

Instead of glowing about the qualifications of his new employee, Mr. Crowther's email had to acknowledge that some doctors already knew about the hiring because they had already received an “anonymous package of materials” about Dr. Benink.

Mr. Crowther did not disclose the substance of the allegations, which hospital officials say are “baseless.”

“We continue to feel confident regarding our recruitment process,” he said.

Even if the allegations are without merit, the episode reflects the hospital administration's broader communication problems, according to some members of the hospital's medical staff. Many doctors did not know the hospital had even picked a chief medical officer until Friday's startling email.

“Nobody on the staff knows anything until it's done, and this is an error of Bruce Crowther,” said Dr. Mamdouh Ishak, an Arlington Heights internist and former president of Northwest's medical staff, who has clashed with the CEO in the past. “His error has been one of lack of transparency.”

The unusual episode is just the latest challenge facing Mr. Crowther, who in November announced he would retire next year, after 20 years on the job.

Dr. Benink replaces Dr. Leighton Smith, who unexpectedly left the hospital June 1. Northwest officials didn't disclose the reason for his departure, but said it wasn't because he had not held a valid Illinois medical license since 1999.

The hospital has had two rounds of layoffs this year, including the elimination of 3 percent of its workforce in September. The job cuts may have helped Northwest to an operating profit of $11.7 million in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, its first annual profit since 2008.

After the controversy surfaced, Northwest asked its search firm “to double-check and validate Dr. Benink's credentials and to investigate these allegations,” Mr. Crowther said.

St. Anthony's CEO told Mr. Crowther that similar allegations were made against Dr. Benink after he instituted changes in the emergency department, according to the email, a copy of which was obtained by Crain's.

In a statement to Crain's, Mr. Crowther said: “Having become aware that doctors received an anonymous letter making unjust attacks against Dr. Benink, I deemed it important to advise doctors that Dr. Benink was chosen after an extensive search process based on facts. Dr. Benink . . . should not be tarred by allegations from an anonymous source.”

An OSF St. Anthony spokeswoman confirmed that Dr. Benink is slated to leave the hospital effective Jan. 1. Dr. Benink was not available for comment.

The spokeswoman declined to comment on the allegations.

Dr. Benink is currently licensed to practice in Illinois and is board certified in emergency medicine, state records show. He graduated from Rush Medical College in 1987 and completed a residency at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn in 1990.

Now he faces the task of building relationships with Northwest's independent physicians, who are key sources of hospital revenue because they send their patients to the hospital for tests and procedures, as well as inpatient care.

In his email, Mr. Crowther told the staff, “I trust you can rally behind Dr. Benink . . . just as you would want to be supported.”

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