Porter brings new doctors on board

MIDDLEBURY — Porter Medical Center (PMC) officials have announced the hiring of four new health care providers to further bolster a medical staff that had seen some defections earlier this year in wake of turbulent times at the county’s hospital and its 12 affiliated physicians’ practices.
And in other PMC news, Porter spokesman Ron Hallman said he expects to be able to share, within the “next several weeks,” some details about PMC’s potential affiliation with a larger medical institution.
Fred Kniffin, Porter’s interim CEO, confirmed the new hires on Friday during his weekly update to Porter staff. He said the new personnel will provide more stability, particularly within Porter’s internal medicine division. Porter this past March had reported the loss of 10 providers in the aftermath of an unpopular round of February layoffs, the awkward rollout of a new compensation plan for physicians, and in reaction to the management style of former Porter President Lynn Boggs.
“I remember how desperate it felt back in March and April in regards to our provider staff,” Kniffin said through an Aug. 5 statement to Porter staff. “We had lost 10 providers over a short amount of time and the future was uncertain.”
But this summer has ushered in a nice period of renewal for the PMC provider base, according to Kniffin.
“I am pleased to report to you that we have made significant progress on this front,” he said, while outlining the following personnel moves:
• Three new hires for Addison Family Medicine, based in Middlebury. They are Dr. Ken Harris, Dr. Emily Gaulker and Jeffrey Abell, a physician’s assistant. Gaulker is dual board-certified in internal medicine and pediatrics, enabling her to see patients of all ages, Kniffin noted. Meanwhile, Harris is dual-board certified in internal medicine and gastroenterology.
“With the arrival of Dr. Harris and Dr. Gaulker, we will have six internists practicing in our community by the end of this year,” Kniffin said. “Our recent recruits put our Addison Family Medicine practice at 5.8 FTE’s/six providers.”
• Dr. Natasha Withers has joined Bristol Internal Medicine.
• Dr. Laura Weylman of Mountain Health Center in Bristol will be joining Little City Family Practice in Vergennes. She will work in a 60-percent position to help shore up Little City, according to Hallman. This means Little City is now fully staffed, as is Middlebury Pediatrics, according to Porter officials.
“We continue to recruit for Bristol Internal Medicine and Neshobe Family Medicine (in Brandon),” Kniffin said, adding the goal is to hire an additional health care provider for each of those practices, as well as an additional Emergency Department physician at the hospital.
• Todd Waldorf, D.O. (doctor of osteopathic medicine), has signed on to join PMC’s Hospitalist Program later this year.
For the most part, the new hires will be starting this fall, according to Porter officials.
“In March, I stood before our community and said that rebuilding our provider staff would require 12 to 18 months, but that it was a priority issue that would receive intense focus,” Kniffin said. “We are working on the problem and making progress. 
“Mission accomplished? No,” Kniffin said. “Progress made and on track to meet our objectives? Yes.”
During a recent interview, Kniffin expressed elation about Porter’s recruiting success.
“I’ve been recruiting providers for a long time, and I was worried that it would be really challenging to bring providers in,” Kniffin said. “I’m really excited people are coming here and seeing the same things that we all see in this community, that it’s a great place to live and work.”
That said, Kniffin acknowledged there’s more work to do to make sure PMC continues to meet area residents’ health care needs.
“I think we’re still in a tumultuous period, but I’m excited by both the quality and quantity of the people we are bringing in,” Kniffin said. “I think we are on track, in terms of the re-build on this particular issue.”
Porter officials believe they are also making progress on another issue — potentially partnering with another medical institution, a move that could improve PMC’s facilities and financial standing. Porter held three public meetings last month to gauge residents’ thoughts on the pros and cons of affiliation, versus keeping PMC independent.
Kniffin said around 50 people turned out at the first public meeting, followed by approximately 15 at the second, and three at the third.
The general message conveyed by attendees, Kniffin said, was that they want to make sure there’s a doctor available when they need one and a hospital ready to treat them if they require substantial care. Officials didn’t take any straw polls at the meetings on the subject of affiliation.
“They just want to be sure that Porter Hospital continues to provide them with the services they have come to expect and that they deserve,” Hallman said. “That’s been our commitment all along, and it remains the focus of our conversations.”
The PMC Board of Trustees met on Wednesday, Aug. 3, to among other things continue the affiliation discussion. Kniffin and Hallman reiterated that PMC has signed confidentiality agreements with an undisclosed number of potential Porter partners. Officials will only be able to share details once the PMC board has whittled the number of partners down to a single finalist, according to Kniffin. At that point, Porter will re-engage Addison County residents on the question of “PMC independence or affiliation?” — this time with public knowledge of the potential partner and its financial offer to Porter.
“We are anxious to communicate, to start sharing with the community,” Hallman said.
The PMC board wants to decide on affiliation before the end of this year, officials said. And it will certainly be one of the biggest decisions made in the 91-year history of the hospital.
“We realize we will only get one bite at this apple,” Hallman said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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