The American Hospital Association has chosen Richard Pollack, its longtime lead lobbyist, to succeed Richard Umbdenstock as CEO. Hospital leaders say Pollack is the right pick, even though he never led a hospital or health system.
Pollack, 59, has been with the AHA for more than three decades and has served as the group's executive vice president for advocacy and public policy since 1991. He will take over the top post in September, the AHA announced Monday during its annual meeting in Washington.
Pollack has developed a sterling reputation for pressing the hospital group's agenda on Capitol Hill and beyond. He's played an integral role in top healthcare policy discussions in recent years, including passage of the Affordable Care Act.
Chip Kahn, president of the Federation of American Hospitals, which represents investor-owned hospitals, called Pollack a “wise Washington hand.”
Sister Carol Keehan, CEO of the Catholic Health Association, offered similar praise. “He has his finger on the pulse, most especially on the tough issues," she said. "I don't think he gets any of the easy questions or any of the easy assignments.”
John Rother, president of the nonpartisan National Coalition on Health Care, noted that it's an unusual pick in the sense that Pollack has not overseen a major hospital system. Before joining the AHA, Pollack served as a lobbyist for the American Nurses Association. The Brooklyn native started his professional career in 1977 as a legislative assistant for Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.)
“In his case, I think it was an appropriate decision,” Rother said. “He's very well known in Washington, well respected, well informed and effective.”
Keehan agreed that the lack of executive experience shouldn't be seen as a disadvantage. She pointed out that leading a national association means corralling a diverse group of members around a cohesive agenda. “The skill set for running an OR or running six hospitals is not the same skill set,” Keehan said. “He's not going to run any hospitals.”
Umbdenstock has led the organization since 2007, a period that witnessed passage of the landmark healthcare law. The AHA under Umbdenstock played a crucial role in backing the Affordable Care Act despite cuts to Medicare reimbursement rates that would hit the group's members.
“The AHA under Rich's leadership stood up and took a prominent role in the development of the Affordable Care Act, and he took risks to do it,” said Bruce Rueben, president of the Florida Hospital Association. “He provided leadership at a time when leadership was demanded.”
“The fact that he was able to generate support at a time of controversy I think was something he can be very proud of,” Rother said. “That's a legacy for him.”
The AHA had a budget of $124 million as of 2013, the most recent year publicly available. Umbdenstock earned $1.9 million in total compensation that year, according to federal tax filings. Pollack's was $1.3 million.
Umbdenstock announced his retirement in November and will leave the association at the end of the year. He also serves as vice chair of the board for the National Quality Forum, which seeks to bolster healthcare performance standards, and as a trustee for Enroll America, a key supporter of the Affordable Care Act.