For those who want to see conditions and morale at Lutheran Health Network's hospitals improve, the firing of the group's CEO, Brian Bauer, couldn't have come at a worse moment.
Lutheran's parent company, Community Health Systems, had indicated it wanted to rebuild trust with doctors and staff who have expressed serious concerns about CHS' commitment to quality health care.
Mayor Tom Henry and other community leaders offered to help. There has been a general understanding that having CHS and Lutheran succeed is closely tied to this community's identity, and its effort to build a better future.
“When we go out to sell this community,” said John Urbahns of Greater Fort Wayne, Inc., “we talk about the fact that we have two high-class health systems within the community – that's one of our selling points.”
But removing the widely respected Bauer, Dupont Hospital CEO Aaron Garofola – who was reassigned by CHS – and Dupont board member Paul Moss would seem to be a move away from CHS' stated goals. Perhaps the company is convinced it can work more effectively with someone else at the helm of its most profitable hospital group.
That still leaves the question of timing.
Coming just weeks after an unsuccessful effort to persuade CHS to sell Lutheran Health to another, unnamed investor group, the move has left Lutheran staff members in fear for their jobs – especially doctors who publicly backed the proposed sale. Instilling fear is no way to assuage old grievances or build confidence in the new leaders the company will appoint. Nor will it allay suspicions that CHS' real motive is to use the Lutheran group as a cash cow to make up for losses elsewhere in its 146-hospital system.
Questions about the Franklin, Tennessee-based company's commitment have been raised elsewhere, as well.
A few months after CHS acquired ownership of LaPorte Regional hospital in Indiana last year, its president and CEO resigned. Leigh Morris, a former LePorte mayor and a former president of the hospital, said CHS then brought in an interim CEO who “alienated staff.”
“It was just awful,” Morris said. “Many physicians left, many employees, and the nursing staff was decimated in certain areas.”
Morris said he and other community leaders complained to CHS about what was happening.
“To their credit, they did make the changes,” bringing in a new president this year who “is doing a great job,” Morris said. “She is putting things back on a positive footing.”
However, Morris said, “we haven't yet seen the commitment to planning and the openness that I would hope for” from CHS.
“They've committed $120 million to rebuilding the hospital,” Morris said. “We don't know, with their financial situation, how firm that commitment is...
“Once you lose that trust,” Morris said, “it's difficult to get it back.”
A CHS spokeswoman said a $125 million replacement hospital is on track, with construction to begin in the spring of 2018.
Cautionary tales from other CHS properties only underscore the concerns here. CHS' leaders must listen to the strong protests that have been registered over Bauer's firing and learn from what appears to us to be a disastrous mistake. Naming a new team of responsive and dedicated leaders, and providing the resources they need to get the job done, would seem the only proper course for the company to take.