A financially troubled hospital needs more than good intentions from its trustees to get back onto solid footing. Business and financial expertise also are necessary ingredients for success in today's competitive healthcare landscape.
Temple University Health System, Philadelphia, got a man with good intentions, good character and a good business background, in longtime trustee and founding member Daniel Polett.
Polett, a Temple University Hospital trustee for 26 years, helped Temple University make the transition from running a stand-alone hospital in one of Philadelphia's poorest neighborhoods to managing a five-hospital system striving to be the region's premier health system and employer of choice.
For his performance, Polett was named Modern Healthcare's 2005 Trustee of the Year for systems with 250 or more beds or over $75 million in annual revenue. The competition is co-sponsored by Witt/Kieffer, a national healthcare executive search firm.
"The hospital was really in a bad way and Dan was the one who led the effort" to bring it back, says Joseph "Chip" Marshall, chairman and chief executive officer of the Temple system. "He's one of the people put on the earth to do good and he's doing it," Marshall says.
Polett, 69, joined the university hospital board in 1978, the middle of a roughly two-decade stretch in which the hospital was in near-constant peril. Temple had borrowed to cover operating losses, had an extremely challenging payer mix, provided millions in uncompensated care and was responsible for supporting Temple's School of Medicine.
One of Polett's first projects entailed getting cash owed the hospital into its hands. "At that time, there was a serious receivables problem. I addressed my energies to that," Polett says. "Whatever reimbursement was out there, we wanted to receive it."
Polett had plenty of experience with receivables as the owner of several car dealerships, and Temple was able boost its payments by steering patients towards federal programs they qualified for, he says.
He was originally asked to sit on the board because he owned a dealership adjacent to the hospital in the poor North Philadelphia neighborhood. University officials, who were putting together the system's first separate board, thought he could bring help on how to thrive in a depressed section of town. "North Philadelphia is probably the worst part of the city," Marshall says.
Though Polett's contributions to the board were immediate, the hospital called on his skills for years to help it struggle through the industry's shift from a cost reimbursement system to a prospectively determined payment rate. In 1990, the hospital had $94,000 in cash, and the hospital considered closing its emergency room to help stem its losses. And Temple had fought the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania over its underfunding of medical-assistance services.
By the mid-1990s, Polett served as chairman of the board's hospital finance committee, giving him an important role in the creation of the affiliations that created its health system, which now has about 50,000 annual admissions, 165,000 annual emergency room visits and annual revenues of $889 million. The main hospital has 536 staffed beds, while the total system has 1,070 staffed beds.
"He came in, he led that turnaround. It was complex, It was very hard," Marshall says.
His contributions to the hospital and health system's revival are very appreciated. Polett has served on the system's board since 1995. "You can't help but like him," says fellow board member Milton Rock. "I've known a lot of guys and he's one of the best," Rock says. "He's a very special guy."
A determined student
While Polett's specialty is car dealerships-he currently owns Chevrolet, Buick and Subaru outlets-Rock and Marshall point to his financial experience and strong personal character as the reasons why he's been a successful trustee.
"He's a very bright man," Marshall says. It's obvious why he's been successful in the car business, he says. "Probably more important, he has an acute sense of what's right and what's wrong," Marshall says. It's a combination of business acumen and a moral compass that has allowed him to succeed with the Temple board, he says.
Also adding to his contributions to the board has been Polett's dedication and forward thinking. "When he brings something up (at a meeting) I know he's researched it," Rock says. And when he doesn't know about a subject he'll find a person who does, be it a financial expert or a clinical specialist, Rock says.
In addition to serving on the health system's board, he serves on boards for Temple University, St. Ignatius Nursing Home, One on One Leadership Council, St. Francis Home for Boys, St. Gabriel's System and Episcopal Academy. He is chairman of Children's Services for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and was vice chairman of Catholic Charities Appeal. In 1998, he was honored by the pope with the Knight Commander of St. Gregory award, which acknowledges his meritorious service to the church.
Beyond his skill at handling the day-to-day board decisions, Polett is able to take a long-range view on where the system should be headed. He's always looking out five or 10 years as to what the hospital's next step should be. For example, Polett was instrumental to the system's recent decision to move 700 administrative and back-office employees to an abandoned factory in North Philadelphia to help speed revitalization.
Polett says his upbringing helps drive his desire to help the health system and the community. He understands firsthand what it's like to come from a less advantageous background.
His mother died when he was 16 years old and his father wasn't around to take care of him at that point, he says. As a result he and his two brothers took on the task of raising each other. "I was the youngest. We managed to stay together," he says. "Each brother helped the other brother."
"College wasn't an option, and we did it anyway," he adds.
Marshall says he's thankful for Polett's commitment to Temple. "He could probably do all sorts of things that are less stressful. Yet, he's with us."
'He's a very bright man. Probably more important, he has an acute sense of what's right and what's wrong.'--Joseph 'Chip' Marshall,
chairman and chief executive officer, Temple University Health System