The interim chief executive hired by Lakeside Health System in March to stabilize the financially shaky organization has signed a one-year contract as the Brockport health system's CEO.
Lakeside chairwoman Nancy Plews announced Hugh Collins' appointment in an internal memo last week.
"The board of directors expresses its confidence in Hugh's leadership, his knowledge of the health care industry and his ability to guide Lakeside Health System in achieving its mission of providing high-quality health care services close to home," Plews said in the Aug. 9 memo.
Collins said this week that for the next 12 months he will suspend activities with Hospital Management Specialists LLC, the three-man hospital consulting group specializing in turnarounds that he founded and heads, and will devote all his energies to Lakeside.
Over the last five months, Lakeside has made substantial progress, but it still has some distance to go, Collins said. Financially, the health system has gone from red ink to breaking even. He hopes to see it in the black after January.
Like other rural and outlying hospitals in the region, the 61-bed Lakeside Memorial Hospital is perennially underoccupied. Low occupancy means it runs the risk of not bringing in revenue sufficient to cover operating costs.
"Revenues are what we need," Collins said.
The first steps Collins took to stem Lakeside's financial losses were on the cost-cutting side, shutting down an underused maternity unit and outsourcing operation of the hospital cafeteria. But cost-cutting alone will not keep the Brockport hospital open, he said.
Lakeside's 41 percent average occupancy rate remains far lower than the 85 percent to 90 percent that the industry generally sees as optimal, Collins said. Raising the rate remains a challenge.
Though it cannot do some things clinically-robotic surgeries, for example-Lakeside in many respects is the equal of city hospitals but less crowded, Collins said.
While outlying facilities have trouble filling beds, city hospitals, including Rochester General Hospital, Unity Hospital in Greece and the University of Rochester Medical Center's Strong Memorial Hospital, have struggled for several years with occupancy rates that routinely top 100 percent.
For patients on Monroe County's west side and for residents of counties adjoining Monroe's western border, Lakeside should present a viable alternative to stays in the city hospitals, Collins said.
"My message is: If you want quality care but don't want to wait for service, Lakeside is the place to be," he said.
Still, Collins conceded, local patients who could be treated at Lakeside often elect to go to larger city hospitals. They usually make that choice because they have been referred to the larger hospitals by their doctors or because they see the city hospitals as providing better care.
Collins' immediate predecessor largely blamed competition from Unity Hospital for Lakeside's occupancy woes. Before abruptly quitting this year, James Wissler sought to rally Sweden town officials and Brockport residents to protest Unity's alleged poaching of patients from Lakeside and petitioned the Finger Lakes Health Systems Agency to withhold approval of an expansion Unity planned for a Brockport clinic.
Though Collins also sees patients ceded to city hospitals as a problem, he seeks a more cooperative solution.
In a bid to keep more patients in Brockport, Lakeside entered a collaborative agreement several years ago with URMC that brought URMC urologists to a twice-weekly clinic at Lakeside. The urologists recently expanded service to Lakeside, agreeing to have two doctors on call at all times, to increase time allotted for patient visits at Lakeside and to do some surgeries at the Brockport hospital.
When he closed Lakeside's maternity unit, Collins similarly inked a deal with a Rochester OB-GYN group. Members of the 10-physician Rochester Gynecologic & Obstetric Associates P.C. started providing full pre-natal and post-natal care to women at Lakeside as well as at nearby offices in Gates last month.
Discussions continue with URMC to broaden services by URMC physicians at Lakeside, Collins said. Specialties added could include cardiology, neurology, ear nose and throat and others.
Collins hopes to broaden Lakeside's collaboration with URMC, striking a deal similar to one URMC concluded with Thompson Health in Canandaigua this year that allows for either system's physicians to practice at the other's facility.
In an earlier interview, URMC CEO Bradford Berk M.D. said URMC is working to tighten ties to Lakeside but cautioned that it could take time. It took years for Thompson and URMC to arrive at the arrangement they concluded this year, he said. It also took time to gain state approvals.
Although no such arrangements are under discussion, Collins said he would not rule out similar collaborative pacts between Lakeside and Unity or Rochester General.
Indeed, he speculated, cooperative arrangements among the underutilized outlying facilities and the overcrowded city hospitals in an interlocking regional delivery system might be just what the doctor ordered for all.
As to his own future, Collins is reluctant to predict what might happen beyond the 12-month window of his current contract with Lakeside. For now he is holding onto the house he owns in Raleigh, N.C., if for no other reason than to serve as a roost for a college-age son and daughter attending schools in Tennessee and North Carolina.
But if Lakeside stays on track and the health system's board is willing, he would consider signing on for a longer hitch here.
"I like the area a lot," Collins said. "I enjoy hunting and fishing, and it's pretty close to some nice spots in Canada."
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