About a year ago, rumors began circulating about then 68-year-old Richard Davidson's future as president of the American Hospital Association. The gossip going around had him telling the AHA board of trustees that he was retiring, and AHA watchers began speculating about possible successors. A number of names surfaced, including that of Richard Umbdenstock, then president and chief executive officer of Providence Services in Spokane, Wash., and chairman-elect of the AHA board. Other names bandied about included several state hospital association presidents and several senior executives at the AHA itself.
The rumors got so persistent that Modern Healthcare reporter Melanie Evans asked the AHA point-blank whether Davidson was retiring. The answer was an unequivocal no; in fact, the association said it had no succession plan in place. The question we debated in our newsroom was whether such a denial was news. Having covered the healthcare industry for more than 20 years, including a three-year stint at several AHA publications back in the mid-1980s, I recommended we go with the story. We did, although we didn't publish the names of possible successors (April 25, 2005, p. 12).
Surprise! Last week, the AHA announced that Davidson told the board he was retiring, and the board picked Umbdenstock, the board's own chairman as well as Davidson's boss, to replace him. In hindsight, this transition may very well have been in the works for more than a year. Everything that happened in between may have been just window dressing or, at the very least, designed to push matters in a desired direction. According to Evans' story in this week's issue, Umbdenstock had a hand in writing what ultimately was his own job description. And anyone who has followed our coverage of the association knows that this wouldn't be the first time during Davidson's tenure that the association painted over the truth.
By choosing Umbdenstock, the AHA pulled off the ultimate inside job, further solidifying the hospital industry's reputation as an "old boy's network." According to the AHA, no one else was considered or interviewed for the position. The selection process, or lack of one, sends a strong signal on how things are really done in healthcare.
By taking the inside track, the association avoided two land mines. First, the AHA didn't have to choose among state hospital association executives who might have competed for the job. Davidson previously ran the Maryland Hospital Association, and his predecessor at the AHA, Carol McCarthy, had led the Massachusetts Hospital Association. Second, the association didn't have to choose among senior executives at the AHA who might have been interested in the top job. The AHA says the association's senior executives are thrilled with Umbdenstock and have no plans to jump ship.
What all this means for Umbdenstock -- who may turn out to be a fine choice to run the nation's largest hospital trade group -- is an open question. I've met Rich, and I've spoken with him many times. He seems to be honest and knowledgeable and to care deeply about making the healthcare system better for patients.
The way Umbdenstock was selected will make his job tougher. He will have to be a superlative industry leader to overcome the perception that the fix was in.
He does have a great opportunity. He is taking over the AHA at a time when two other major hospital associations have new leaders. That will give Umbdenstock a unique chance to shape the future of the hospital lobby rather than simply fill a warm chair at the table. Sister Carol Keehan took over as president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association last October, and Darrell Kirch will become president of the Association of American Medical Colleges in July. Including Chip Kahn, president of the Federation of American Hospitals, this quartet could be formidable in pushing the hospital industry agenda.