Former workers at a Missouri hospital question leadership roles claimed by Robert Weaver, a 39-year-old member of Quapaw tribe, who says he is qualified to lead agency
President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the troubled Indian Health Service appears to have misrepresented his work experience at a Missouri hospital to a Senate committee, according to former employees at the hospital.
The nominee, Robert Weaver, 39 years old, has “nearly two decades of experience in hospital, mental health administration,” the Trump administration said in announcing his candidacy.
Evidence of that experience cited on his publicly available resume and a formal document provided to U.S. senators includes his time at St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Joplin, Mo., from 1997 to 2006.
On the résumé, he described financial roles he held at the hospital, including overseeing accounts receivable and the budget. In the document addressed to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee after his nomination, he said he worked in “supervisory and management positions” there, according to a spokeswoman for Sen. Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat who is vice chairman of the committee. The committee is responsible for reviewing the nomination before the full Senate considers it.
The spokeswoman, Jennifer Talhelm, provided the information after the Journal contacted Mr. Udall’s office seeking information about Mr. Weaver’s representations.
She said Mr. Weaver, a member of the Quapaw tribe of Oklahoma, told the Senate committee that his leadership experience qualifies him to lead the IHS, a roughly $6 billion federal agency that operates 26 hospitals and oversees medical care for more than 2 million Native Americans.
However, former St. John’s managers in some of the areas where he said he worked don’t remember him: “I don’t recall that name whatsoever,” said Augusto Noronha, who was chief financial officer of the hospital from 1999 until 2005.
“I’ve never heard that name before,” said Wayne Noethe, a former controller at the hospital.
Another former executive, Bob Henderson, who was director of patient financial services, said he recalled a subordinate named Rob Weaver who registered E.R. patients, gathered insurance information and collected copays, and who eventually supervised a few other patient-registration workers.
Asked whether that constituted a leadership role, Mr. Henderson said, “Well, I guess it would depend upon how you look at leadership.” Other former St. John’s officials described this as an “entry level” job.
The Journal cross-checked each account of a former St. John’s employee’s tenure and roles with at least two of their old colleagues.
A spokeswoman for the committee’s chairman, John Hoeven, a Republican from North Dakota, said the committee would look into the Journal’s findings of inconsistencies concerning the nominee’s credentials and make sure “all these questions and others are fully answered by Mr. Weaver.”
Mr. Weaver, in a brief phone call Thursday, referred all questions to U.S. Health and Human Services Department, which oversees the IHS, but said: “There’s a lot more to this story than what you are apparently being told” and declined to elaborate.
An HHS spokeswoman declined to comment on whether the agency and Mr. Weaver stood by past representations about his hospital experience.
The spokeswoman said “any suggestion Mr. Weaver is unqualified to run IHS is a pure act of character assassination.”
She declined to comment on his titles at St. John’s, his responsibilities, or whom he supervised, but forwarded statements from Dottie Bringle, a former chief nursing officer at St. John’s. The statements said Mr. Weaver “provided oversight for responsibilities including great communication, organizational skills, problem-solving skills as well as the ability to work well with others.” One said his roles included “oversight of many other team members.”
Ms. Bringle confirmed the statements were hers, but declined to elaborate.
The HHS spokeswoman sent the Journal a series of statements by tribal leaders, citing Mr. Weaver’s qualifications. Three of them said Mr. Weaver “has worked with the IHS system for nearly two decades.” Asked by the Journal what constituted his IHS experience, the spokeswoman said he had needed the system as a patient, especially when he was a child, and pointed to his career in health care.
Mr. Weaver’s nomination was sent to the U.S. Senate for confirmation in October. The next leader of the agency, which hasn’t had a Senate-confirmed director since 2015, will face daunting challenges: Two of the IHS’s hospitals have been banned from the Medicare program for failing to meet U.S. requirements for care. The agency has struggled with staffing problems and allegations that negligent treatment led to numerous patient deaths.
Mr. Weaver told senators that U.S. Rep. Markwayne Mullin, an Oklahoma Republican, first suggested the idea of his nomination to be IHS director during a March 2017 meeting between the two men, according to Ms. Talhelm. A spokeswoman for Rep. Mullin confirmed Mr. Weaver’s account.
A spokeswoman for St. Louis-based Mercy health system, which acquired St. John’s Regional Medical Center in 2009, said the company couldn’t verify Mr. Weaver’s positions because some of its records were destroyed in a 2011 tornado that leveled parts of Joplin and badly damaged the hospital.
The HHS spokeswoman said Mr. Weaver’s own copies of employment records were also destroyed in the tornado.
His résumé states that he worked at St. John’s Regional Medical Center in “various hospital administration positions, including managing all accounts receivable, budgets, patient access and physician recruitment.”
He told Mr. Udall in a meeting that his management roles included, in his first few positions, oversight of 80 to 100 staff members, Ms. Talhelm said. The document provided to senators also described “leadership roles” at a large health system, Ms. Talhelm said. He didn’t mention working at any other health system other than St. John’s, she said.
Asked what evidence of his St. John’s roles Mr. Weaver offered, Ms. Talhelm said, Mr. Weaver at first couldn’t recall his titles at the hospital and provided a “list of nonspecific positions.”
Rhonda Foust, who worked in finance at the Joplin hospital from 1981 to 2010, said she doesn’t recall crossing paths with Mr. Weaver. “I was the budget coordinator during that whole time,” she said.“If this person was over budgets, I would have known them.”
Jane Obert, a longtime manager who served as compliance officer among other jobs from 1992 to 2008, said that his name didn’t ring a bell to her. “I was involved in every single physician contract deal for that whole period that he claimed to work there. Anyone in physician recruitment would definitely interact with me.”
Diane Sadler, an accounting manager at the hospital from 1993 until 2010, said she worked “side by side with accounts receivable” and never met Mr. Weaver. “I’m sure I would have remembered the last name Weaver because that was my grandmother’s last name,” she said.
Mr. Henderson, the patient-financial services director who remembers a subordinate named Rob Weaver, said he seemed like a sharp young man and stood out for his confidence and ability to resolve conflict. Still, he said he didn’t recall Mr. Weaver ever overseeing accounts receivable or working in budgeting or physician recruitment, or regularly participating in the leadership meetings while working under his chain of command. Mr. Henderson left the hospital in 2006.
He said that the department where Mr. Weaver worked included about 35 people and that he recalled Mr. Weaver may have supervised a portion of them, but didn’t oversee the whole department.
“I’m sure that Robert has probably grown in his skills and abilities since that time,” Mr. Henderson said.
While some tribes say Mr. Weaver’s unconventional background is needed to lead IHS, other tribal officials and medical associations have questioned whether, if accurate, the credentials Mr. Weaver has claimed qualify him for the job—or for addressing the agency’s current challenges.
After Mr. Weaver’s nomination, the Association of American Indian Physicians published a list of what it says should be the minimal qualifications for an IHS director. It includes at least five years of clinical experience and, preferably, a medical degree, neither of which Mr. Weaver has.
One of Mr. Weaver’s resumes says that he attended Missouri Southern State University and that he studied “International Business w/ emphasis in Marketing and Accounting; Minor in Spanish; Minor in Vocal Music & Piano.” It doesn’t say that he graduated.
A spokeswoman for the university, Cassie Mathes, said Mr. Weaver attended from 1996 through the fall of 2001, pursued a BA in Spanish and was listed as “degree seeking” as of 2001 but never graduated. The timing indicates that he attended college during some of the years he worked at the Joplin hospital.
The HHS spokeswoman said Mr. Weaver had changed his major from Spanish to international business.
His experience also includes working as a self-employed insurance salesman and benefits consultant, according to his résumé and current and former clients of his business. Oklahoma licensing records show he obtained his license to sell insurance products in 2007 and formed a series of companies.
Kay Rhoads, the principal chief of the Sac and Fox Nation, which hired Mr. Weaver’s company to negotiate its health-insurance rates last year, said Mr. Weaver did a good job in getting cheaper rates for the tribe. Ms. Rhoads said Mr. Weaver’s background would bring more financial accountability to IHS.
Ms. Rhoads added, “We’ve had people with medical backgrounds for years and it hasn’t worked.”
The last IHS director to be confirmed by the Senate, Yvette Roubideaux, was a medical doctor with three degrees from Harvard. Dr. Roubideaux, who has faced intense criticism of her stewardship of the agency from 2009 to 2015, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
—Lisa Schwartz contributed to this article.