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New CEO Ready for the Challenge

April 10, 2009
This article appeared in the Montana Standard in February 2009 Chuck Wright knew what he was getting into. The chief executive officer of St. James Healthcare took over Jan. 31 and is now at the helm of a hospital mired in years of infighting and the distrust of some of its most skilled employees. "I don't think it's any secret in the community," said Wright. "The number one issue is how in the world do we get this civil war between medical groups and the hospital put to bed?" The disputes between the doctors and the hospital are varied. There is disagreement on how the two factions should split revenue and also who can give final approval on which doctors can practice at the hospital. Doctors have claimed the hospital's contracts with out-of-state firms, such as those for radiologists, have forced out longtime local specialists. The hospital said it needs to keep costs down by contracting some services. Wright said it is the inability to resolve these issues that has led to a poor working environment, making it all the more difficult to recruit and retain high-quality physicians. "There is way too much distrust in the hospital right now," he said. "That's what we've got to overcome." Wright said a reticence to speak openly about the issues has kept both sides from moving forward. "Part of that has taken place against a backdrop of legal action, which really inhibits your ability to be as candid and forthright as maybe you would like to be," he said. Therefore, he wants to settle the pending lawsuits as quickly as possible. "If that's possible," he said. First choice for the job Gary Staudinger, chair-man of the St. James Health-care board of directors, said the possibility of growth at the hospital under Wright's leadership, his track record in management and experience overcoming obstacles made him the board's first choice. "He had the experience in situations where the hospitals had not been in the best financial positions when he took them over and he had the ability to get things turned around," Staudinger said. Wright said that while a complete financial report is not yet available for the previous fiscal year, he estimated St. James operated at a loss of more than $10 million. Turnarounds, though, are Wright's specialty and that's what makes Staudinger optimistic about the future. A turnaround in New Mexico But Wright wasn't about to rest on his laurels. After being called up and serving in Desert Storm at the age of 40, Wright then took a position as the CEO of a hospital in Gallup, N.M. Gallup is a poor, isolated community along the famous Route 66 and the hospital there had lost almost $16 million over the previous two years before Wright took over. "Watching their hospital teeter on the edge of extinction was a real concern for the community," he said. But after firing several high-ranking employees, Wright reorganized the hos-pital staff and improved the hospital's relationship with local governments. After two years on the job, Wright's hospital had pulled off a complete turnaround, pulling in a $2.6 million profit in the 2006 fiscal year. Once again, though, Wright felt the call to another challenge. He first heard of St. James while he worked in Oregon, and was quickly made aware of the problems at the facility. But that was no deterrent — it made him want it more. "There is a perverse side of me that enjoys turnaround opportunities," he said. "This is the third one in a row." As of Jan. 31, the St. James had 492 full-time equivalent employees, with an annual payroll of $30.7 million. The hospital laid off 23 employees the month before Wright arrived and with attrition is operating with 50 less workers than at this time last year. Those cutbacks were necessary, according to Staudinger and then-interim CEO Bain Farris, because of declining patient counts. Wright said another round of layoffs is not in the plans, but can't be ruled out. He said that the hospital would like to add approximately two dozen more specialists to its roster of doctors, but that is something that would best be deter-mined by the medical staff. "We could be doing a lot more than we are doing here," he said. Need to get more dialogue That brings Wright back to the need for a dialogue between the hospital and the medical community and creating at least a "begrudging receptivity" between the two camps. "We need to find a way to get these docs and the hospital to put down these swords and come together and decide what we can support as a community," he said. Wright, who is trying to sell his house in New Mexico, is renting an apartment in the Mining City. He is waiting for his wife, a teacher in Gallup, to finish the school year and before they settle into Butte. He said he wants St. James Healthcare to be an asset to this community, not a detraction. "We want St. James to have a reputation that makes people want to come here and (be) something that the com-munity can be proud of," he said. "If the local hospital doesn't have that reputation, I think it makes it very hard for somebody in the chamber or economic development to lure new industry."