A leadership change is afoot at a Roman Catholic healthcare system in Missouri that is plagued by a money-losing health plan.
After 13 years, Sister Mary Roch Rocklage, 64, will step down July 1 as president and chief executive officer of Sisters of Mercy Health System-St. Louis, a 23-hospital system.
She has served as the system's top executive since its founding in 1986.
Rocklage, who serves as chairwoman of the system's 13-member board, will take on that role full-time when she leaves the CEO post. Rocklage also is a member of the American Hospital Association's 25-member board of trustees.
Rocklage, who responded to questions in writing, said the leadership change is unrelated to the financial performance of the system's managed-care company, 132,515-enrollee Mercy Health Plans of Missouri.
After losing almost $21 million in 1997, Mercy Health Plans lost another $7 million in 1998, according to an annual statement filed with the Missouri Department of Insurance.
The company had total revenues of $117.1 million in 1997 and $173.5 million in 1998.
Thomas Kelly, president of Mercy Health Plans, attributed last year's loss to start-up costs for a St. Louis Medicare managed-care plan, Medicaid losses and the plan's failure to charge enough in premiums.
"The loss will be either almost all gone or all gone in 1999," Kelly said.
The Sisters of Mercy refused to divulge the overall system's latest net income or loss, or its total revenues. Rocklage provided only one figure -- the system's total operating revenues of $2.24 billion in fiscal 1998.
Rocklage said her leadership succession has been in the planning process "for a number of years."
"I feel it is not good, for the individual or the system, for one person to serve too long in a significant leadership role," she wrote.
In her expanded board-chairwoman role, Rocklage said, she will develop ways to prepare other people for system leadership and governance roles.
Replacing Rocklage is Ronald Ashworth, who has worked as the system's executive vice president and chief operating officer since 1991.
Rocklage called Ashworth "extremely well qualified" to take the helm.
Ashworth, 53, who could not be reached for comment, will be the first layman to serve as system CEO.
Before joining Sisters of Mercy, he worked for 23 years in various leadership positions at research and consulting firm KPMG, where he was national director of the company's healthcare practice.
Ashworth is chairman of the board of the Missouri Hospital Association and a board member of Phycor, a Nashville-based physician practice management company.