Walter May, leader of Pikeville hospital's growth, ousted as CEO

May spoke at the 2014 opening of the Pam May Clinic Building
and garage, a $130 million project. (News-Express file photo)
Walter May, who led the transformation of Pikeville Medical Center into one of Kentucky's leading hospitals, has left as president and chief executive officer, without official explanation.

"In a statement, Pikeville Medical Center said May’s position as CEO will now be filled by Assistant CEO Donovan Blackburn," the Appalachian News-Express of Pikeville reports. "Blackburn was appointed assistant CEO in May 2017, after serving for 13 years as city manager for the City of Pikeville."


Donovan Blackburn
Blackburn switched jobs the same week that Pamela Todd May, the CEO's wife and the hospital's chief lawyer, died at age 64. Former Gov. Paul Patton of Pikeville told Kentucky Health News that he thought Walter May, who is 80 or 81, brought on Blackburn to groom as a successor.

The hospital's press release, headlined "PMC Announces Changes," gave no hint of the reason for May's departure. Its only mention of him was, “The hospital wants to express its deep appreciation for more than 56 years of service to the hospital by former CEO and board chairman Walter E. May. May has not given any statements about his future plans.

But there had already been much talk in Pikeville about May and the hospital. In a full-page advertisement in the Oct. 26 News-Express, May responded to "an anonymous group of people in the community have been circulating some financial information about me and my family" and payments they and their businesses had received from the hospital.

"With a hospital the size of PMC in a small community the size of Pike County, it is inevitable that the hospital will hire relatives of a member of the board of the directors or will do business with a company that has some relationship to a member of the board," May wrote. "To guard against impropriety, PMC employs KPMG, a large, nationally-known accounting firm, to evaluate transactions between the hospital and members of the board of directors, key employees, and/or their family members, including some doctors. KPMG has indicated that each transaction evaluated contains reasonable compensation for services being performed for the hospital. In keeping with good corporate governance principles, the hospital does not obtain any other services from that particular accounting firm."

May also defended employment of "members of my extended family," his wife's work for the hospital and his own compensation, which he said was set by the board of directors, and cited the hospital's progress. He said he had taken pay cuts during business downturns, and in the current one, reduced payments to his East Kentucky Broadcasting Co. by 20 percent. "I view advertising as an investment," he wrote.

EKB has several radio stations in East Kentucky and West Virginia and a cable news channel in Pikeville. May has been president of the Kentucky Broadcasters Association and chairman of the National Association of Broadcasters. He "began his medical career at the Appalachian Regional Hospital on Harolds Branch when he was appointed to the board of directors in 1962," the News-Express reports. The hospital was sold to Pikeville Methodist Hospital in 1966 and May was also appointed to the board. He was appointed as chairman in 1990 before being named interim CEO in 1998. By January 2000, he had been named president and CEO and maintained both positions until Tuesday’s announcement."

The Pikeville hospital is in an area with many health issues.
During his tenure, May led the renaming of the hospital to Pikeville Medical Center. Its heritage remains reflected in its motto, “World-Class Quality Health Care in a Christian Environment.” The hospital announced in 2016 that its payroll had reached 3,000. It is one of only two Kentucky hospitals with top ratings for hospital safety since ratings began in 2014, but was on the low end of 2015 ratings of Kentucky hospitals for preventing hospital-acquired infections. In the same year, it received top patient-satisfaction ratings and was one of only three rural hospitals rated in excellent condition by the state auditor's office.

"Under May’s leadership, the medical center saw a major addition to the main structure, the addition of the Leonard Lawson Care Center, the Pam May Clinic Building, a partnership with the Mayo Clinic, an after-hours clinic and more," the thrice-weekly News-Express reports. It also started a weekly newspaper, The Medical Leader.

May told Pete Fernbaugh of Healthcareix in 2012, “I’m getting more satisfaction out of this than I ever did being in broadcasting, because I know that there are people alive today in this region that would not be alive if I hadn’t taken some action that I’ve taken. I know I’ve made a difference and what makes it even more special is that I can pass some of these people walking on the street. They wouldn’t know who I was, and I don’t know who they are, but somehow that makes it more special to me.”

May closed his newspaper ad by writing, "I have said all I plan to say about this situation, other than to extend an invitation to the anonymous group of people who have raised this issue. If they truly have the betterment of our community and the best intentions for PMC in mind, I invite them to come out from behind the curtain of anonymity for a positive and frank discussion. Until then, I leave you with this old saying: The Native Americans said you never shoot an arrow into the chief until he is mortally wounded. Well, folks … I’m not mortally wounded."

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