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More than a hope and a prayer for Illinois hospital

In an industry gripped by consolidation, Palos Community Hospital in Palos Heights, Ill., guards its independence with a strong balance sheet and firm leadership from the last of a generation of nuns who once led many of Chicago's hospitals.

Another key is Sister Margaret Wright, 77, who started in the hospital's physical therapy department and became CEO more than 30 years ago. A quiet taskmaster, she also is known for her careful interest in the personal lives of her employees, people who know her say. The former theology student can be tough whether negotiating with insurance carriers or reining in difficult-to-manage doctors, they say.“She holds people accountable, staff as well as physicians,” says David Seaman, CEO of Blue Island-based physicians group Pronger Smith Medical Care LLP. “She's very protective of the institution.”

She will be the sole nun serving as chief executive of a Chicago-area hospital, following the announcement last week that Sister Sheila Lyne, 76, is stepping down as CEO of Mercy Hospital & Medical Center on the Near South Side. Sister Elizabeth Van Straten, 68, who like Ms. Wright is a member of the Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph, is retiring in January as CEO of St. Bernard Hospital on the South Side.

Ms. Wright grew up on Chicago's South Side. Her father was a police officer. Her mother was an Irish immigrant and former North Sider who passed her lifelong love of the Cubs to her daughter.

Seeing the nuns in action prompted Ms. Wright to join the Montreal-based order, Ms. Boase says. Ms. Wright took her vows in 1960 and later earned a master's degree in sacramental theology from Marquette University.

Palos, which opened when the south suburban population was booming, faces the challenge of caring for more senior citizens at a time when Medicare reimbursement rates are tightening.The health care program for the elderly and the disabled accounted for 44 percent of net patient revenue in 2011, up from 37.5 percent in 2008. In an era of hospital consolidation, even some of Ms. Wright's admirers say Palos eventually will have to join a larger health care network.

As CEO, Ms. Wright plays a critical role in strategic decisions, such as starting new programs like cardiac care, while paying a close eye to every detail of the operation, says Carole Ruzich, a hospital board member.

To attract new patients, Palos is gearing up for the opening in March of a new, seven-story patient pavilion, part of a plan to convert to all private rooms, while increasing capacity by 13 percent, to 428 beds. But the project has more than doubled the hospital's debt, to about $275 million, since 2009.

Richard Pepper, chairman emeritus of Chicago-based Pepper Construction Group Inc., the hospital's longtime general contractor, says Ms. Wright sets high expectations.

“Let's say our operation is an A,” he says. “Working for Sister Margaret, you got to be an A+.”
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