Board member calls for change in leadership at Minnesota health system linked to racist incidents

Hennepin County Commissioner Irene Fernando is calling on Minneapolis-based Hennepin Healthcare to fire employees and demote supervisors over what she called "deeply rooted" racism within the organization, the Star Tribune reported March 3.   

Ms. Fernando, who has served on the Hennepin Healthcare Board since 2020, specifically cited the newspaper's recent reports detailing two incidents.

"It was reported [March 2] that there are multiple photos of two Hennepin Healthcare employees, including the current EMS deputy chief and a paramedic, in blackface," Ms. Fernando wrote in a statement. "One of these photos may have been taken at an event hosted or sanctioned by Hennepin EMS. Regardless of when the photos were taken, the conduct of these employees is abhorrent. Dressing in blackface and treating race, ethnicity or culture as a costume is degrading, extremely racist and cannot be tolerated. The employees in the photos should be fired, and supervisors who were aware of this misconduct should be disciplined and removed from leadership positions."

Ms. Fernando also cited a Feb. 12 report about a physician at the health system who was in a training video for Minneapolis police obtained by the Star Tribune. The newspaper reported that the video shows the physician continued to train law enforcement on "a severe form of agitation called 'excited delirium,'" after the Minneapolis mayor had said the city ended this training last year.

"This is unacceptable and a direct violation of an organizational directive," wrote Ms. Fernando. "Excited delirium is a controversial diagnosis that is not recognized by the American Medical Association. It is clear that this diagnosis is rooted in systemic racism and has been used to justify the assault and murder of victims of police violence, particularly Black, Indigenous and people of color. The doctor who conducted this training should be fired for his actions, and supervisors who were aware of his misconduct should be disciplined and removed from leadership positions."

She concluded that the recently reported incidents, along with what she called "slow action from management," are indicative of "a harmful pattern that damages community trust."

In a statement posted online, Hennepin Healthcare responded to the commissioner's remarks and the recent reports, saying that making progress with health equity "takes courage, humility and resolve."

"We know that along with incremental successes we will also encounter new learnings, pain points and challenges to overcome," the statement said. "We also know that these discoveries may create even more pain for our team members and our community, who are already trying to heal from racism. These events, hard as they are, also provide an opportunity to realize our mission of high-quality healthcare for our community and enable us to reach our full potential as an organization."

The health system ackowledged the blackface photos. The CEO, Jennifer DeCubellis, told the Star Tribune March 3 that leadership took "strong action" in response to the photos, but she declined to comment on the specifics because of personnel data policies and an ongoing review

"Let us be clear that we take this very seriously and our next steps will be determined by any findings. We acknowledge the harm and apologize for the impact to our community and our teams. We regret our role in causing further pain for those we serve and for those who serve," said Hennepin Healthcare.

Moving forward, the health system said it will "continue to use education to change perceptions and actions, evaluate our policies and processes through an anti-racism lens, and create a culture of accountability."

Ms. DeCubellis told the Star Tribune the health system is also establishing new training to change the health system's culture.

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