In just the first half of this year, more than 60 hospital CEOs have retired or left their roles, according to search firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas. Retirements are up 48 percent from the same time last year. Part of this is generational, as many Baby Boomer leaders are at retirement age, but the latest wave comes after many delayed planned exits during the pandemic to guide their organizations through the crisis. 2
Now, after two-plus grueling years of leading through COVID, executives are ready to pass the baton. The latest high-profile announcement came this week, with Salt Lake City-based Intermountain Healthcare’s CEO Marc Harrison announcing his plans to leave the system for a role at venture firm General Catalyst.
The Gist: As a recent piece from Modern Healthcare points out, many systems have known their CEOs were exiting well in advance, but the significant cultural and financial consequences associated with choosing a new leader, especially during a period of industry-wide change, are presenting boards with hiring decisions as difficult as they are important.
Astute organizations have been planning ahead for these transitions, developing a bench of next-generation leaders, and providing them exposure to the board. COVID also served as a helpful stress test to identify talent who rose to the occasion to lead confidently and calmly through the crisis, while simultaneously weeding others out who floundered under uncertainty.
The next generation of leaders will need different skills to navigate current and future challenges, including rethinking the role of the health system in response to a new class of disruptors, and managing through a workforce crisis that will require evolving the labor model while meeting new demands for workforce diversity and engagement.
As the economic situation has worsened over the past few months, we’ve been working with several health systems to recalibrate strategy. For many, the anticipated “post-COVID recovery” period has turned into a struggle to reverse declining (often negative) margins, while still scrambling to address mounting workforce shortages. All this amid continued pressure from disruptive competitors and ever-rising consumer expectations.
In the graphic above, we’ve pulled together some of the most important changes we believe health systems need to make. These range from improvements to the operating model (shifting to a team-based approach to staffing, greater use of automation where appropriate, and moving to asset-light capital strategies) to transformations of the clinical model (moving care into lower-cost outpatient and community settings, integrating virtual care into clinical delivery, and creating tighter alignment with key physicians).
In general, the goal is to deliver lower-cost care in less expensive settings, using less expensive staff.
But those cost-saving strategies will need to be coupled with a new go-to-market approach, including new payment models that reward systems for shifting away from high-cost (and highly reimbursed) care models.
Employers and consumers will expect more solution-based offerings, which integrate care across the continuum into coherent bundles of service. This will require a more deliberate focus on service line strategies, moving away from a fragmented, inpatient-centric model.
Contracting approaches must align payment with this shift, changing incentives to reward coordinated, cost-effective, outcomes-driven care.
A key insight from our discussions with health system leaders: short-term cost-cutting initiatives to “stop the bleed” won’t suffice—instead, more permanent solutions will be required that address not only the core operating model, but also the approach to revenue generation.
The post-COVID environment is turning out to be a lot tougher than many had expected, to say the least.
Dozens of hospital CEOs have resigned this year as a record number of chiefs across all industries have exited their roles, according to a May 18 Challenger, Gray & Christmas report.
Nearly 520 CEOs left their posts between Jan. 1 and the end of April, the highest total since the executive outplacement and coaching firm began tracking CEO changes in 2002. The total is up 18 percent from the 440 CEO exits announced in the same period of 2021.
Thirty-six hospital CEOs exited their roles in the first four months of this year. That’s up from the 20 hospital chiefs who resigned in the same period last year, according to the report.
CEOs are leaving their positions and businesses are making changes at the top for several reasons, Challenger, Gray & Christmas Senior Vice President Andrew Challenger said.
“Inflation, staffing shortages, and possible recession concerns are giving more cause for companies to reevaluate leadership,” Mr. Challenger said. “This, after years of companies trying to figure out the right formula to attract and retain talent and create a culture of inclusion, issues that often start at the top.”
Judging from our recent conversations with health system executives, we’d guess CEOs across the industry woke up this morning glad to see the first quarter in the rearview mirror.
Almost everyone we’ve spoken to has told us that the past three months have been miserable from an operating margin perspective—skyrocketing labor costs, rising drug and supply prices, and stubbornly long length of stay, particularly among Medicare patients.
In the words of one CFO, “I’ve never seen anything like this. For the first time, we budgeted for a negative margin, and still didn’t hit our target. I’m not sure how long our board will let us stay on this trajectory before things change.”
Yet few of the drivers of poor financial performance appear to be temporary. Perhaps the over-reliance on agency nursing staff will wane as COVID volumes bottom out (for how long remains unknown), but overall labor costs will remain high, there’s no immediate relief for supply chain issues, and COVID-related delays in care have left many patients sicker—and thus in need of more costly care. Plus, the lifeline of federal relief funds is rapidly dwindling, if not already gone.
Expect the next three quarters (and beyond) to bring a greater focus on cost cutting, especially as not-for-profit systems struggle to defend their bond ratings in the face of rising interest rates.
We recently got a call from a health system board chair seeking our perspective on the system’s ongoing search for a new CEO. At the top of his list: trying to understand how important it will be for the next CEO to be a physician. “We’ve never had a doctor in the role,” he mused. “But now we employ hundreds of doctors. And you’d have to imagine that having a physician as CEO would help with physician alignment.”
While choosing a physician CEO brings great signal value to the medical staff, we cautioned that it’s far from a panacea.
Of course, there are advantages in having walked in a frontline clinician’s shoes, being able to personally identify with their challenges and speak their language. But over the years, working with hundreds of health system CEOs, we’ve found that the most important characteristic of a CEO who will advance physician strategy is the desire to form strong personal relationships with doctors and draw on their counsel.
Does the CEO build a “kitchen cabinet” of physician leaders whom he can consult? Are physicians viewed as something to be managed, a problem to solve, or seen as true partners in strategy? Even more simply, does she like spending time with physicians, or groan every time a meeting with doctors pops up on the calendar? We’ve seen many non-physician CEOs excel at building strong, strategic ties with doctors, and some physician executives, who become jaded by never-ending physician alignment struggles, fail to advance partnerships with their colleagues.
One retiring physician CEO, reflecting on his replacement by a nonclinical executive, summed it up well: “I have a feeling he’ll do well with our doctors. He counts several physicians among his closest friends, which is a great sign.”
A Universal Health Services investor is suing several executives of the King of Prussia, Pa.-based system, alleging they unjustly enriched themselves through stock options amid the pandemic, according to Law360.
The lawsuit, filed in the Delaware Chancery Court and made public July 9, accuses UHS executives and directors of taking advantage of a pandemic-related temporary hit in the company’s stock price and argues taking the stock options was “grossly unfair to the company and its stockholders.”
“The controllers and other company insiders took advantage of the temporary drop in the company’s stock price to grant and receive options to buy the company’s stock at rock bottom prices, thereby showering themselves in excessive compensation,” the lawsuit claims.
In particular, the lawsuit claims that in just 12 days after the stock options were granted, defendants made over $30 million in gains.
Several top execs were named as defendants, including Alan Miller, UHS founder and chair and Marc Miller, CEO and president of UHS. Three other UHS execs were named, as well as Warren Nimetz, an administrative partner of law firm Norton Rose Fulbright’s New York office.
“UHS’s directors and officers deny any liability associated with the company’s routine and publicly disclosed options grant in March 2020,” attorney Matthew Madden of Robbins Russell Englert Orseck & Untereiner, representing UHS, its executives and Mr. Nimetz, told Law360. “The options grant was in line with the company’s compensation practices in prior years and took place at a board meeting scheduled months in advance.”
Mr. Madden added that UHS’ executives and officials “acted properly” and that the plaintiff’s claims are “baseless.”
“UHS is proud of its service to patients, and stewardship of investor capital, during these unprecedented times in the healthcare industry,” Mr. Madden told Law360.
Michael Freed, the former CFO of Spectrum Health, said he was “stunned” when he heard that the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based system plans to pursue a merger with Southfield, Mich.-based Beaumont Health, for myriad reasons.
In a June 24 open letter to Spectrum’s board of directors, Mr. Freed said during his tenure they discussed possible mergers routinely and that a Spectrum-Beaumont combination “brought nothing new with it” and wouldn’t enhance value.
“The markets didn’t overlap, so there were no significant administrative savings opportunities. The ability of each hospital to grow wasn’t enhanced by adding the other to the ‘system,'” Mr. Freed wrote. “In short, I never saw how such a merger could improve health, enhance value or make care more affordable. I still don’t.”
Mr. Freed was Spectrum’s CFO from May 1995 to December 2013. During his tenure, he helped oversee the formation of Spectrum and a substantive period of growth for the Michigan system. Mr. Freed also served as CEO of Spectrum’s health plan, Priority Health, from May 2012 until he retired in January 2016.
In his letter, Mr. Freed outlined several reasons he was “stunned” by the pursuit of the merger that would create a health system with 22 hospitals, 305 outpatient centers and about $13 billion in operating revenue.
Mr. Freed wrote that the merger with Beaumont, which is based in Southfield, Mich., may not be in the best interest of West Michigan. He said the combination of the two systems raises questions about whether governance truly will remain in the region and with Spectrum, if financial transparency will continue and if Spectrum will continue to honor the consent decree it signed in 1997 establishing a set of operational guidelines.
If the merger moves forward, “debt can be placed on the books of West Michigan while investments EARNED IN West Michigan could be spent in SE Michigan … and vice versa,” Mr. Freed wrote. “If this entity should someday merge with other out-of-state entities, West Michigan could find itself investing in healthcare in other states as well, rather than in its own health.”
Mr. Freed raised concerns over the agreement between Spectrum and Beaumont to create a 16-person board of directors, seven of whom would come from Spectrum and seven from Beaumont. The CEO would come from Spectrum, and one new board member will be appointed.
“While this structure looks to favor Spectrum Health initially, it would only take the hiring of a board member more favorable to Beaumont Health and the replacement of the CEO (in favor of Beaumont Health) for Spectrum Health to find itself outvoted 9 to 7 on key issues,” Mr. Freed said.
Additionally, Mr. Freed noted that the merger has the potential for massive financial losses to West Michigan. In particular, Mr. Freed said losses would stem from the financial assets of Spectrum and Priority Health no longer residing in West Michigan.
“I’ll admit, I don’t see any value in this merger,” Mr. Freed wrote. “I only see the potential for massive financial loss, both historically and an undetermined amount going forward, to the region that produced all of Spectrum Health.”
Mr. Freed urged the Spectrum board to take a few steps before moving forward with the merger, including selling or divesting Priority Health.
“When you sign the documents that will permanently change this region, your signature will forever hold you accountable for the repercussions,” Mr. Freed wrote. “Please sign carefully.”
Spectrum Health told MiBiz it remains committed to the commitments in the 1997 consent agreement and that it “remains enthusiastic” about the merger.
“Spectrum Health is fully committed to fulfilling its consent decree obligations and will continue to uphold its tenets,” the health system said. “We remain confident that creating a new system not only meets our current obligations to our local communities but will also improve the health of individuals in West Michigan and throughout the state.”
In our work over the years advising health systems on M&A, we’ve been struck by how often “social issues” cause deals that are otherwise strategically sound to go off the rails.
Of course, it’s an old chestnut that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, but what’s been notable, especially recently, is how early in the process hot-button governance and leadership issues enter the discussions.
Where is the headquarters going to be? Who’s going to be the CEO of the combined entity? And most vexingly, how many board seats is each organization going to get? That last issue is particularly troublesome, as it’s often where negotiations get bogged down. But as one health system board member recently pointed out to us, getting hung up on whether board seats are split 7-6 or 8-5 is just silly—in her words, “If you’re in a position where board decisions turn on that close of a margin, you’ve got much bigger strategic problems.”
It’s an excellent point. While boards shouldn’t just rubber stamp decisions made by management, it’s incumbent on the CEO and senior leaders to enfranchise and collaborate with the board in setting strategy, and critical decisions should rarely, if ever, come down to razor-thin vote tallies.
If a merger makes sense on its merits, and the strategic vision for the combined organization is clear, quibbling over how many seats each legacy system “gets” seems foolish. No board should go into a merger anticipating a future in which small majorities determine the outcome of big decisions.