Shortly after arriving as Administrative Dean at Harvard Medical School in the fall of 1998, I was invited to attend a three-day strategic planning retreat for the senior managers and clinical leadership and lay leaders of CareGroup. They were kind enough to invite me, as someone new to the medical field, to get an intensive briefing on the inner workings of part of the Harvard hospital system. It was a fascinating experience, and I learned a lot.
I was struck by the sense of unity and purpose of all those attending to create a vibrant and strong CareGroup integrated health care delivery network. Nonetheless, within a short time, I noticed that it wasn't working.
First of all, the merger of the BI and the Deaconess was well into several years of bad results. What had been portrayed as a merger of equals was actually a takeover of the Deaconess by the BI. A look at the clinical and administrative leadership of the BIDMC made it clear that the BI folks had the overwhelming role in running the place. This, along with other misteps, left the Deaconess people feeling left out and alienated and undervalued. Doctors left, nurses were disgruntled, referring physicians changed loyalty, and lay leaders from both the BI and the Deaconess in the community became disenfranchised. Operating losses grew year after year, into the tens of millions of dollars.
The CareGroup holding company, meanwhile, made clinical judgments that further weakened the BIDMC -- most noticeably a commitment to moving the preponderance of orthopaedics to New England Baptist. For a general hospital like BIDMC to lose this specialty meant a significant hit and loss of potential growth to its bottom line.
As BIDMC weakened, both the Baptist and Mt. Auburn, the two other major hospitals in the system, feared for their financial future -- because the debt issued under the CareGroup name was a joint and several obligation of all of the hospitals. How could the two hospitals raise philanthropic donations, for example, if donors thought that funds would be used to bail out the Medical Center?
Meanwhile, the system's three small community hospitals in Needham, Waltham, and Ayer were suffering from the usual woes of community hospitals in Massachusetts, and the Baptist and Mt. Auburn also fretted about the financial impact of those hospitals. The CareGroup board ultimately voted to close the Waltham hospital, but it had to remove the local board to do so, because that local board refused to accede to this action. This use of reserve powers by the holding company board sent a shock wave throughout the system: While everybody knew that the CareGroup board had this authority, it had never been used so dramatically.
You can imagine why this series of events led to a lack of cooperation and collaboration among the Caregroup hospitals. All hope for an integrated health care delivery system was shattered. Eventually, at the behest of the hospitals, the CareGroup board voted to reduce its authority over the member institutions, removing itself from clinical matters and focusing instead on its fiduciary responsibility to the bond holders.