You might call the Rev. Michael Place the Charles Kuralt of Catholic healthcare.
Like Kuralt, the legendary CBS newsman who traveled the country with his "On the Road" series, Place is always on his way to someplace else.
President and chief executive officer of the Catholic Health Association since February, Place usually spends fewer than 10 days a month at the organization's St. Louis headquarters.
The rest of the time he's on the road getting a bird's-eye view of healthcare from the field or working in the CHA's Washington office.
Between business trips, Place squeezes in personal travel, often spending weekends at a home he owns with another priest in Indiana or heading to suburban Chicago to spend Sundays with his mother.
The hectic pace means Place is frequently off to a different city every day.
"Some people say, `Where are you?' and I don't know," he jokes.
David Lincoln applauds the meet-and-greet strategy.
"I think it's great," says Lincoln, president and CEO of Lexington, Mass.-based Covenant Health Systems and chairman of the CHA board when Place was picked for the top executive job last December. "We're an association that has to keep in touch with our constituency, who happen to be a whole host of different kinds of stakeholders."
The CHA represents more than 1,200 Catholic healthcare providers, from large multistate systems to stand-alone hospitals to religious congregation sponsors.
In September, MODERN HEALTHCARE accompanied Place on one of his jaunts, a trip that took him to New York City.
In a span of less than eight hours, Place travels from glitzy Manhattan to the poverty of the South Bronx to meet with providers along the continuum of care.
He starts the day at the system level, addressing members of the Franciscan Health Partnership, an 11-hospital system based in New York, which was holding its annual meeting at the Sheraton New York in Midtown Manhattan.
Before an early-morning crowd of 200 people, Place talks about the challenges facing providers. He also offers words of caution as they go about their business in the fast-paced world of healthcare.
Passionate about healthcare, Place gestures when he speaks, often repeating himself for emphasis. It's a style you can imagine Place used during his time as a teacher at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary, now called Mundelein Seminary of the University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, Ill.
"Our corporate structures must never grow so large that we lose sight of the faces of people in need," he says.
At 54, Place is a dapper cleric. Ordained in 1970, Place has a penchant for French cuffs, which peek out from beneath the sleeves of the black suits that are his usual priestly garb.
In his morning speech, Place covers a gamut of topics, from new financing systems to better integration of care to the continuing need to push for systemic national healthcare reform.
"We have to be that fingernail on the blackboard," he says.
Finishing his first stop shortly after 10 a.m., Place is off to 508-bed Our Lady of Mercy Medical Center on East 233rd Street in the Bronx.
A livery driver is supposed to pick up Place at the Sheraton, but even the best-laid plans can go awry. The driver, in a Volvo sedan, is waiting for Place at the wrong Sheraton, and the day's schedule quickly falls apart.
Exacerbating the late pickup, Manhattan traffic is clogged, and the trip to the Bronx slows to a crawl.
Place came to the CHA via a circuitous route.
"So much of my life is an accident," says Place, whose background is as a moral theologian. He expected to have a teaching career.
But like his schedule this day, things didn't work out as planned.
Before coming to the CHA, Place served 14 years as a high-ranking official within the Archdiocese of Chicago. He came to work at the archdiocese in 1984 at the behest of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.
During his last eight years in Chicago, he was the archdiocese's senior adviser on healthcare matters, a post to which Bernardin appointed him.
Bernardin, who died from cancer in 1996, had been critical of business dealings between Roman Catholic and investor-owned hospitals, preferring Catholics to work with other Catholic and not-for-profit organizations.
Membership in the CHA is not open to for-profit systems.
Place, who was part of Bernardin's inner circle, says the cardinal was a leadership role model for him.
"He was . . . a mentor," Place says. "Part of how I now am is because I watched and learned from him."
Place believes his friend would have been proud of Place's new job.
"Oh, I think he'd be pleased," Place says.
After Bernardin's death, Place was still working for the Chicago archdiocese when he was approached about the CHA job by a member of the search committee.
"My first thought was shock and flattery," Place says.
That's because Place figured if he worked in healthcare it would be in a job handling ethics and theology at a major healthcare system, not running a national association.
The CHA was in the market for a new leader after its former top executive John Curley Jr. announced he was retiring in February 1997 after 18 years with the group.
Place agreed to throw his name in the ring, and in December 1997 the CHA's 25-member board selected him as its new president and CEO.
Board members say they were impressed by Place's passion for healthcare, his educational background and his ability to deal with complex issues, both in healthcare and from a manager's perspective.
They say Place's tremendous analytical skills help him deal with the CHA's diverse membership.
"To be able to figure out what stake every constituency (has) in every issue is quite a challenge," says Sister Doris Gottemoeller, CHA board chairwoman.
But it's Place's passion for the ministry that sold Gottemoeller on him.
"The person in this role has to be a cheerleader, and (Place) cares deeply about it," she says.
According to the CHA, Place's total annual compensation is $404,400, which includes a base salary of $370,000 and $34,400 in benefits. Place's total compensation is less than Curley's, which was $515,045 in 1996.
Place says his goal is to tithe 10% of his annual salary to the Archdiocese of Chicago and other programs within the Catholic Church.
One of the people Place beat out for the job was William Cox, Curley's longtime top lieutenant. Cox, an executive vice president, resigned from the CHA in September after nearly 20 years with the organization.
Cox declined to comment for this story.
Place is perfect for the CHA job because he can use all his skills, says the Rev. Sammie Maletta of Gary, Ind., a friend of Place's for more than 20 years.
"Michael is an extremely committed person . . . sometimes, as a friend, I think too committed," says Maletta, who is vicar general/moderator of the curia of the Diocese of Gary. "He will put his whole heart and soul and blood into whatever he is doing. The standards he sets for himself are extremely high."
Maletta, who co-owns a weekend home with Place, says people may sometimes get a mistaken impression of his friend, seeing him as arrogant or standoffish.
"He is an introvert trying to live in an extrovert world," Maletta says. "Michael is a dreamer and poet; he is very shy. . . . Michael is really a bashful person."
Place says his travel helps to erase any perception that the CHA is out of touch with its members.
"As the method or mode of healthcare delivery has shifted over the years, particularly with the enhanced role of systems, there was a perception that the CHA, in its organizational style and in the products and services it delivered, was not fully responsive to the needs of systems," Place says.
The CHA has taken other steps to be more responsive to healthcare systems.
At its annual meeting in June in New Orleans, the CHA revamped its dues structure, further recognizing the evolution of systems and integrated delivery networks (June 15, p. 14). CHA members also approved new membership guidelines to allow for-profit physician practices and HMOs to join the association for the first time. A 12-member task force had worked on the changes for more than two years.
Running about an hour behind schedule, Place arrives at about noon at Our Lady of Mercy for a tour of the medical center's neonatal intensive-care unit and pediatric wing.
In the 22-bed NICU, Place sees premature babies not much bigger than baby dolls. One baby, just 2 days old, weighed little more than a pound.
"In our unit, this baby's chance for a normal survival is quite good," Martin Katzenstein, M.D., chief of neonatology, tells Place.
Impressed by what he sees, Place tells Katzenstein: "You do great work."
With the day's schedule in shambles, Place spends about 35 minutes at Our Lady of Mercy before he heads off to another stop.
This time it's to visit the Dominican Sisters Family Health Service in the South Bronx.
From their three brownstones at Alexander Avenue and 139th Street, the nuns and lay staff alike run a host of programs, from home nursing care to HIV education to mother-toddler activities. A social work walk-in program tackles everything from foreign language translation to finding housing for the homeless.
In the basement of one of the brownstones, over a simple lunch of rice and beans and chicken, Place listens to the women who care for those for whom poverty is a way of life.
"The community's needs are all primal survival needs," says Sister Geraldine Finan, a nursing supervisor at the center.
The family health service center serves a neighborhood that is 75% Latino and among one of the poorest communities in the country.
Last year, the South Bronx center served more than 1,100 clients.
"I'm really proud to have had the opportunity to hear all you're doing," Place says.
Later, Margaret Sweeney, the health service center's administrator, says Place's visit means a lot to the group.
"I think it was wonderful," she says. "I think in some ways we have something very special, and sometimes we don't always think that other people understand. When they come to visit, it gives such a clearer picture."