It rang a bell in the young man. “I had been in management since I was kid,” recalls Lerner, now 63. “I managed a drugstore and a Burger King when I was 17. So we talked about hospital administration, and I went to Michigan and interviewed. I was lucky enough to be accepted.”
Lerner, one of two American College of Healthcare Executives Gold Medal Award winners this year—the highest honor given by the organization—was the first of his family to graduate from college. His only connection to healthcare came tangentially from his father, who served as an Army medic in World War II.
While at Ann Arbor, Lerner quickly discovered the differences between hospital operations and his other managerial experiences. He says he was drawn to healthcare because of the opportunity to serve others. It was there he met Gail Warden, who served as his mentor and also went through the University of Michigan master's program.
Warden would eventually become the longtime president and CEO of the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit. Last year, Lerner became chairman of the Griffith Leadership Center in Health Management & Policy advisory board at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, a post Warden previously held.
After earning his master's, Lerner joined Rush-Presbyterian St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago in 1972 and served in a variety of roles, including vice president of administrative affairs and chairman of the department of
health systems management. He says he loves his profession, but recalls it wasn't such an easy transition from undergraduate studies.
“The first years I was at Michigan, I really thought I was taking Latin,” he says. “I had no concept of what was going on.”
Lerner isn't a stranger to today's climate of hospital mergers and consolidations. He served from 1990 to 1996 as president of the Jewish Hospital of St. Louis. The hospital in 1996 merged with Barnes Hospital in St. Louis to form what eventually would become BJC HealthCare.
A year later, Lerner edited Anatomy of a Merger: BJC Health System, which covers details of the transaction with the help of several healthcare executives who were involved in the deal. His aim was to provide executives an insider's view of the merger that brought together providers in urban, suburban and rural areas. Lerner pushed for the deal, which also called for C-suite consolidation that ultimately cost Lerner his leadership position.
The creation of BJC left the merger partners in a better position to form an integrated delivery model, which was a boon to the community. Lerner says he knew that it would help the St. Louis metropolitan area and supported the merger, even if it left him without a job.