Lewis Aims at Sumner Regional Makeover

September 7, 2011

By Mike Towle
The Tennessean

A little over a year ago, whenever the subject of Sumner Regional Health Systems came up, and it often did around Gallatin, you could not complete a sentence without throwing out phrases such as “reversionary clause,” “transfer of assets,” “unsecured creditors,” or, good grief, “bankruptcy court.” Not a great way to speak of a Sumner County landmark healthcare facility, its mission to heal the sick at the same time it was trying to raise itself from the dead.

What Sumner Regional needed in order to survive – and therefore clean up the language around town – was a lifeline. That was provided by Brentwood-based LifePoint Hospitals, which on Aug. 31, 2010 finalized its purchase of SRHS for about $150 million, give or take, in the process renaming it HighPoint Health System.

The Sumner Regional-to-LifePoint transaction was finalized after No. 1, the state attorney general’s office ruled it would take no action to block the sale, and No. 2, after our fiscally-astute county commission voted to withdraw its objections to the sales. In return, the commission codgers scored a $15 million cash payment for the county as well as $25 million in future services, all of which made those threatening “reversionary clause” references magically disappear from everyone’s lips.

Thursday, Sept. 1 marked the one-year anniversary of Mary Jo Lewis’s first official day as HighPoint CEO and caretaker for one of Middle Tennessee’s major caregivers. In the last 12 months, Lewis has made it a point to get to know many of her employees – both as inquisitive chief executive and as a patient.

Lewis was still new to the job when chest pains sent her to the ER one Saturday morning while doing some housework. While not there to snoop, she saw inefficiencies in the treatment process that delayed her access to a physician.

“The care was very good, but everything took too long,” Lewis said, although, “I didn’t die.”

This past winter, during a snowstorm that rendered the pavement slick, Lewis twisted her right foot while running to get in out of the cold and snow. She thought it only a sprain. The discoloration and swelling faded away after a few days, but the persistent pain didn’t. Finally, she got the foot X-rayed. It was broken. That put her in a boot for three months. CEO, heal thyself?

In taking over as HighPoint CEO, Lewis inherited a workforce of about 1,300. Many employees had been on pins and needles for more than a year, wondering on one level if they were still going to be employed the next month; on another, clueless if their hospital, with its junk-rated bonds, would even survive into 2011. Lewis had to cultivate a corporate culture that needed a bedside manner makeover.

“One thing we said in coming here was we wouldn’t lay anyone off, and we haven’t,” said Lewis. “We’ve had some attrition, but haven’t had to cut staff, and we’ve hired 158 people. We’ve also provided more than $50 million in charity care and paid out about $3 million in taxes that include city and county property taxes.”

One of the defining moments in her first year, Lewis said, was when she called together eight to 10 physicians for a 7 p.m. meeting. Lewis broke the tension by saying, “The hospital wants the same things the doctors do.” Looking back a year later, Lewis said one sore point among physicians had been a computer glitch that made electronic-records access a four-aspirin headache.

“I said, ‘We’ll fix that,’” Lewis said. “We need to be a friendly-user hospital.”

Folks on the outside who get treatment inside Sumner Regional seem to be noticing. Lewis cites a significant rise since January in patient satisfaction scores on exit surveys, and monthly ER volume has increased from about 2,700 a month to 3,100. Is that because more people in and around Gallatin are having health issues? No, Lewis said, “More people are coming here because we have new processes in place. Word’s getting around that you don’t have to wait here. It’s paying attention to details.”