By choosing an outspoken clergyman as its next top executive, the Catholic Health Association is signaling to its membership and to the healthcare industry that it's going to take a hard-line position against business ventures between Roman Catholic and for-profit healthcare providers.
Late last week, the CHA's 25-member board selected the Rev. Michael Place, 53, the senior healthcare adviser in the Chicago archdiocese for most of this decade, as CHA's president and chief executive officer effective in February.
Place will succeed John Curley Jr., a layman who announced his retirement in February after having held CHA's top executive post for the past 18 years.
Place's background is as a moral theologian, but he has become more involved in business dealings of Catholic hospitals in recent years. As Consult for Policy Development for the Archdiocese of Chicago, Place has been a vocal critic of investor-owned hospital companies and isn't likely to soften his stance if his comments last week are any indication.
"We must work with others to ensure that healthcare remains accountable to the needs of individuals and communities and that it is never regarded as just another commodity subject only to the forces of the marketplace," Place said.
Place edged out a field of candidates that included Curley's longtime top lieutenant, William Cox. Observers had said they believed Cox, 50, was being groomed for the top job.
Two years ago the CHA promoted Cox to executive vice president. He has been with CHA in its Washington office for the past 17 years, heading up its advocacy efforts for much of that time. Cox wasn't available for comment.
In addition to Place and Cox, a search committee interviewed two other candidates from a field of 60.
Place appears to be relatively unknown in healthcare circles. American Hospital Association President Richard Davidson, for instance, has never met Place, according to Richard Wade, the AHA's senior vice president for communications.
"I expect that t he AHA and the CHA will continue to have the same close relationship," Wade said. "We have an occasional issue that divides us. (Place's) views on the investor-owned segment are known, and that's an issue that attracts strong feelings, but there are a lot more issues in the galaxy than that one."
Executives at Irving, Texas-based VHA, the nation's largest alliance of not-for-profit hospitals, also said they hadn't heard of Place.
But Place's role in healthcare has been well-known in the Chicago area and hasn't been without controversy.
Place's behind-the-scenes activity pushed Chicago's late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin to the forefront in opposing investor-owned hospital chains. He also helped Bernardin create protocols in 1994 for Catholic hospitals in their business dealings.
The protocols, which have been adopted by some other dioceses across the country, warn against business ventures with investor-owned chains and against "undue competition" among Catholic hospitals. Bernardin threatened to strip Chicago's St. Elizabeth's Hospital of its Catholic status last year when it wanted to join a managed-care contracting network led by the University of Chicago Hospitals, a secular, not-for-profit teaching hospital.
As the eighth CEO in the CHA's 82-year history, Place will lead an association whose net income and revenues dropped slightly in 1996 compared with the previous year. The CHA represents 542 hospitals and 61 healthcare systems, none of which are for-profit. It has 82 full-time-equivalent employees, with 70 at its St. Louis headquarters and 12 in its Washington office.
Board members wouldn't say what Place's salary will be. Curley's compensation last year totaled $515,045, consisting of $335,004 in salary, a $162,444 contribution to his employee benefits plan and $17,597 in expense allowances.