Interim CEO of Sparks Health System dismissed after ‘Hispanic’ comment

story by Michael Tilley

Officials with Community Health Systems, the parent company of Sparks Health System in Fort Smith, moved fast to remove interim CEO Tim Schmidt following a racially insensitive remark he made during an employee meeting.

On Tuesday, Schmidt was addressing a group of 100-150 hospital employees. During the question-and-answer portion, Schmidt was asked why he wanted to move from Laredo, Texas – a larger city with population of about 240,000 – to Fort Smith.

According to three sources who spoke to The City Wire, Schmidt responded: “Have you ever been to Laredo, Texas? It’s 97% Hispanic.” The sources said the comment soon made its way through the hospital, with Hispanic employees – to include at least one physician – expressing displeasure with the comment.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Laredo’s population was 95.6% Hispanic in 2010. The city is the third most populous city on the U.S.-Mexican border, trailing San Diego and El Paso.

“Laredo continues to be a community on the rise,” notes the Laredo Chamber of Commerce website. “With four bustling international bridges, three modern hospitals, a constantly-evolving university and an expanding system of infrastructure, Laredo and Webb County provide a safe and promising environment for families and entrepreneurs alike.”

Officials with Franklin, Tenn.-based Community Health decided Thursday to announce that Schmidt would no longer be employed at Sparks. It is uncertain if he will remain employed by Community Health.

“Sparks Health System continues its search for a new CEO after the interim candidate for the position was taken out of consideration. The hospital continues to identify and evaluate qualified candidates,” noted a statement Sparks Health System sent The City Wire on Thursday (May 8). “Sparks is a vital community asset, a trusted healthcare provider and a major employer. We look forward to identifying the experienced, dynamic, community-minded leader who will build on strengths of our medical staff and dedicated employees and lead our health system to continued success.”

One of the three sources who spoke to The City Wire said Community Health plans to send officials to Sparks next week to directly address the issue with hospital employees.

Schmidt, who has more than 20 years experience in hospital administration and previously served as CEO at hospitals in Illinois, New Mexico and Texas, was in March named the interim Sparks CEO.

Sparks has had a tough time finding a CEO. Schmidt was the third interim or named CEO to resign or be dismissed since the January 2013 departure of CEO Melody Trimble.

Gary Blan was picked to succeed Trimble when she was promoted to president of Naples, Fla.-based Health Management Associates' Southern and Western Group. Trimble’s promotion was effective Jan. 1, 2013. HMA was then the parent company of Sparks. Blan resigned in May 2013, less than three months after being hired.

Charles Stewart was then named CEO in September 2013, but his resignation would come less than six months later.

Sparks and Summit were part of the sale of HMA to Community Health Systems, a company whose portfolio of hospitals was nearly double the size of HMA's portfolio. Locally, CHS owns four Northwest Arkansas facilities — Northwest Medical Center-Bentonville, Northwest Medical Center-Springdale, Siloam Springs Regional Hospital and Willow Creek Women's Hospital in Johnson.