Less than a year after Antony Chiang arrived in Asheville to lead the newly formed Dogwood Health Trust, he’s left the foundation — and despite repeated attempts, Xpress has yet to learn why.
On Sept. 23, the DHT announced that Chiang would step down as CEO, effective immediately. The statement, signed by Dogwood board Chair Janice Brumit, noted that “after careful and collaborative discussion, Antony and the board of directors have considered the needs of Dogwood Health Trust going forward; together, we have determined that a different approach is required.”
Chiang was supposed to speak with local press that same afternoon, his first public update since a teleconference with media outlets on March 25. The Sept. 23 press call was canceled minutes after news of Chiang’s departure broke and has yet to be rescheduled. Brumit also declined to comment on the shift in leadership, despite closing the aforementioned statement by encouraging individuals with questions to contact her “at any time.”
Xpress then sought comment from the other 12 members of the DHT board. None responded to inquiries; as staff made those emails and phone calls, foundation spokesperson Erica Allison told Xpress by email that the paper would “not be as successful as you might hope in gathering additional comments at this time.”
“No one else will be available and what we’ve provided so far is truly all that is available,” Allison added.
The DHT was formed in 2019 following the $1.5 billion sale of the nonprofit Mission Health System to HCA Healthcare, creating one of the largest foundations per capita in the world. In January, the trust awarded more than $3.7 million to nonprofit and government agencies in North Carolina’s 18 westernmost counties; in April, Dogwood committed $10 million to help slow the spread of COVID-19.
On Sept. 22 — a day before the announcement of Chiang’s departure — the DHT board approved $1 million for one-time racial equity community grants of up to $25,000 benefiting “historically underfunded” organizations serving Black, Indigenous and communities of color. The grants are part of a larger $5.5 million allocation to address racial equity in the region, according to a press release.
Given its size and potential regional impact, the trust’s lack of transparency is worrying, argues Alan Sager, a professor and director of the health reform program at Boston University’s school of public health.
“When Asheville and much of Western North Carolina gave up community control over its hospitals, except for $1.5 billion in a charitable remainder, it could be asserted that the foundation has an obligation to describe important choices about its mission and how to implement that mission to the citizens of the area,” he says. “That is not happening.”
Dogwood’s statement is full of “vague rhetoric,” Sager continues, and doesn’t do anything to explain the reason for Chiang’s departure. Without more information, he says, it’s possible to “speculate almost endlessly” about what may have caused the rift between him and the board.
“The new foundation and its trustees may not have thought through what they were trying to do, and they may not have hired someone — Antony Chiang — whose aims and methods were in accord with their intentions,” Sager hypothesized. “Or everyone may have been acting carefully and thoughtfully, but unexpected disagreements emerged during the past year. And if the disagreements mirror important choices about the mission or methods of Dogwood Health, some people might expect that the choices would be discussed publicly.”
Sources close to the DHT leadership team, who spoke with Xpress on background to avoid jeopardizing their professional relationships with the foundation, say they were completely surprised by the decision. Previous interactions with both Chiang and the board of directors, they said, did not suggest major conflict between the two parties.
Brumit’s Sept. 23 statement also highlights points of agreement between Chiang and the board. According to the press release, members were “immensely grateful” for Chiang’s contributions, including his role in launching the organization’s Leverage Fund, Impact Investing program and investments in substance use disorder. “Though DHT may require a different approach in its next phase, the Board has the utmost respect for Antony’s talents and impact,” the statement read.
For now, some oversight of the DHT will come from the office of Attorney General Josh Stein. In January 2019, Stein issued a series of conditions for approving the HCA-Mission Health transaction, including requirements that Dogwood cut the Buncombe County contingent of its board from seven members to four by 2021 and spend $25 million over a five-year span to address substance abuse in the region. He also created an independent monitor to oversee HCA’s commitment to the terms of the deal.
Laura Brewer, Stein’s communications director, responded to queries about Chiang’s departure by reaffirming that the AG’s office “looks forward to continuing to work with Dogwood Health Trust to strengthen Western North Carolina communities,” though she did not address how the changes would impact Stein’s work with HCA or the independent monitor.
The foundation has also established a strong working relationship with Asheville city staff and elected officials, said Mayor Esther Manheimer, when asked about the potential impacts of the leadership change.
“Since the launch of Dogwood, I have been pleased with the board’s direction to the director and staff to lean into a broad range of community challenges, including everything from jumping into the management of the pandemic crisis to long-term issues like affordable housing and student Wi-Fi connectivity,” Manheimer said. “I am confident that our strong working relationship will continue and I’m looking forward to it.”
The 2019 search for the foundation’s CEO was led by executive search firm WittKieffer. According to a leadership profile circulated in March 2019, the desired candidate would be “sophisticated yet humble,” with experience managing an innovative, complex organization. When asked if the firm would be assisting in the search for Chiang’s replacement, consultant Julie Rosen referred Xpress back to Dogwood’s communications team, who did not offer comment.
Before his short stint with the DHT, Chiang served as president of Empire Health Foundation in Spokane, Wash. His salary at Dogwood has not been released in any of the trust’s public tax records to date; according to Empire Health Foundation’s tax records, he was making $235,100 annually, plus more than $49,000 in employee benefits and $11,000 in an expense account, before moving to Asheville.
The DHT will hold its annual meeting online Wednesday, Oct. 28, 3:30-5:30 p.m. Staff and board members are expected to share updates about Dogwood’s work and answer questions.