The Rev. Michael Place exits his job as head of the Catholic Health Association advocating the same cause he championed when he arrived at the CHA nearly seven years ago: healthcare reform.
"We have to be that fingernail on the blackboard," he urged a New York crowd in February 1998, months after he left the Archdiocese of Chicago to become president and chief executive officer of the St. Louis-based trade group. He made similarly insistent pleas in recent months, calling the problem of 44 million uninsured Americans a "national disgrace" and an overhaul of healthcare a "moral obligation."
But Place said earlier this month he won't be the one to lead the CHA's three-year effort to make coverage of the uninsured a top priority for America's lawmakers and voters. "It didn't feel like a natural fit to me," said Place, who described the decision to step down as difficult, but "right things aren't always easy."
The CHA isn't the only major Catholic health organization to experience turnover at the top in recent months.
Anthony Tersigni was named president and CEO of Ascension Health, St. Louis, in June, replacing Douglas French, who stepped down in May. Robert Haddad assumed the top office at Caritas Christi Health Care in mid-May after the Boston-based health system's CEO, Michael Collins, departed in April. In November, Novi, Mich.-based Trinity Health named Joseph Swedish to replace outgoing President and CEO Judith Pelham, and Bon Secours Health System, Marriottsville, Md., named Richard Statuto as president and CEO to replace Christopher Carney.
The 60-year-old Place's decision to step down as CEO in February 2005 surprised industry insiders, who said he brought an extensive background in health policy and a strong understanding of Catholicism to the job. The CHA quietly announced Place's resignation after business hours Friday, Dec. 3, in a news release.
Place holds a doctorate in theology and spent eight years in the Archdiocese of Chicago shaping Catholic policy, including health policy, before taking his job at the CHA.
During his tenure, the CHA championed healthcare reform and, in recent years, the association defended Catholic providers' tax-exempt status as not-for-profit hospitals' business practices toward low-income and uninsured patients came under attack. Place launched the association's "Covering a Nation" push to increase healthcare access, which his successor will inherit.
Under Place, the organization grew from 1,200 members to more than 2,000, including 617 U.S. Catholic hospitals. Its revenues increased from $16.8 million in fiscal 1998 to $18.9 million with $1 million in profit in 2003.
Place said his departure isn't a sign he disagrees with the association's agenda. "It's been under my watch that we've arrived at where we are," he said. Rather, he timed his departure to coincide with the launch of a multiyear effort to build grass-roots and political support for universal health coverage, giving his successor control of the initiative from the start. In the news release announcing his departure, Place said the push "deserved continuity of leadership as well as the requisite expertise." Reforming healthcare won't happen quickly or without failures, Place told Modern Healthcare.
Place is not leaving to pursue another job. He said he hopes to take a sabbatical and rest before returning to work. "Sixty isn't old, but 60 isn't 40," he said. "I'm not clear what's next."
Sister Carol Keehan, chairwoman of the CHA board, said she learned of Place's decision in late November. His lengthy career and commitment to health policy made Place's decision to resign surprising, but after seven years of grappling with healthcare policy and grueling travel schedules, his decision to step down is understandable, she said.
Keehan said the trustees have no one singled out as Place's successor. "There's no anointed soul out there," she said, nor have the trustees emphasized candidates with any specific type of background. The CHA is putting together a search committee, she said. Whether the CHA hires a search firm will be decided by the committee, and no timetable has been set for hiring Place's replacement, she said through CHA spokesman Fred Caesar.
Richard Davidson, president of the American Hospital Association, said he had mixed emotions upon learning that Place planned to step down. "I was surprised," said Davidson, who praised Place's leadership. The AHA and CHA frequently work together to lobby lawmakers on policies such as insurance coverage, opposing specialty hospitals and protecting the tax-exempt status of not-for-profit hospitals.
In 2003, Place earned $833,109 in salary, benefits and expenses, a 12.6% increase from his 2002 compensation. Place's 2002 compensation ranked as the seventh-highest among Modern Healthcare's ranking of healthcare association executives.