Two executives walk into a boardroom and flip a coin: loser gets to be CEO of Partners HealthCare.
OK, maybe the job isn’t that bad. Life could be worse running General Electric or the MBTA.
But in terms of Boston business drama, it doesn’t get better than this: David Torchiana, the CEO of one of the country’s preeminent hospital chains, quits in a huff, apparently fed up with corralling the two strong-willed leaders of Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s.
Partners will downplay the family feud, but some of this rings true. Think about it. How long could you endure MGH’s Peter Slavin and the Brigham’s Betsy Nabel nipping at your heels?
The fact that the Partners board hasn’t appointed a new CEO or an interim yet says something, which is this: the 800-pound health care gorilla is at a crossroads. Existential questions abound for the 25-year-old company: At what cost growth? Is bigger better? Or is it just a holding company?
When Partners was formed in 1994 by bringing together Mass. General and the Brigham, it was a chance for the teaching hospitals to gain leverage over insurers. That was the focus of the first three CEOs — Dick Nesson, Sam Thier, and Jim Mongan — as well as policy-driven initiatives such as securing more government funding and navigating Romneycare.
These three doctors-turned-CEOs have been credited with building the Partners of today: a $13 billion regional system that delivers high quality care at high prices. Then along came Gary Gottlieb and Torchiana, also white coats who went to the corner office.
Same strategy? Not so fast. The health care landscape had shifted. Starting in 2012, the state of Massachusetts began to monitor the growth in total health care spending. If Partners wanted to grow revenue, it needed to get bigger. Gottlieb purchased an insurer, Neighborhood Health Plan. Then he tried unsuccessfully to buy South Shore Hospital in Weymouth, which Maura Healey derailed in one of her first acts as attorney general in early 2015.
Soon after, Gottlieb was gone, and the torch was passed to Torchiana. Any lessons learned? Apparently not. Torchiana reached for the same playbook and began gobbling up hospitals outside of Massachusetts. He then entertained merger talks with Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, but those fell apart last fall. Less than three months later, Torchiana called it quits.
Now what? The Partners board, chaired by private equity honcho Scott Sperling, needs to reexamine the mission and strategy. Is the organization growing for growth’s sake? Should the system focus on finding the cure for cancer or a treatment for Alzheimer’s, rather than buying more hospitals?
Answering those questions will go a long to finding the right leader. One thing’s for sure, the board shouldn’t stick with the Partners Way, which is plucking a doctor as the next CEO from one of its two teaching hospitals.
The best person may not be at the Brigham or at MGH. That person may not even be a doctor. That person may not even be working at Partners.
Impossible? No. There are plenty of potential candidates, many of them Partners alums. Consider Kate Walsh, who is not a doctor but was the chief operating officer of the Brigham and now serves as the president of Boston Medical Center. Or how about Tom Lee, Partners’ former network president, who is now the chief medical officer at consulting group Press Ganey. Then there’s Paula Johnson, a former Brigham doctor and women’s health advocate who is the president of Wellesley College.
(Note to the board: The aforementioned list represent the kind of diverse candidate pool that should be standard in 2019. )
Other names I’ve heard: Gregg Meyer, Partners’ chief clinical officer; Troy Brennan, who ran Brigham’s physicians group and is now the chief medical officer of CVS Health; Dan Podolsky, the former chief academic officer at Partners who is president of the UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
It’s a tough job, and someone will have to do it. Partners, for all its foibles, is too important a health care institution to go rudderless.