In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, Anthony Rajkumar found himself wading through flood waters to deliver batteries for the ventilators at Coney Island Hospital.
The then-chief operating officer at Kings County Hospital had been escorted by law enforcement to the storm-battered facility, where seven critically-ill patients had remained behind when the public hospital evacuated about 200 people from the facility.
Rajkumar, 56, recalled that story Wednesday afternoon as he prepared to return to Coney Island Hospital. But this time, he is its new chief executive.
It has been a harrowing few weeks for NYC Health & Hospitals. The health system faced scrutiny from unions, politicians and the New York Post, which featured an anonymous tell-all from a former Coney Island Hospital doctor who said careless nurses and physicians put pediatric patients in danger.
Now H&H CEO Dr. Ram Raju hopes to restore public confidence in the hospital by installing Rajkumar as CEO and Mei Kong, 50, as chief operating officer. Rajkumar, who will leave his current post as executive director at Manhattan's Metropolitan Hospital, has spent more than 25 years with the health network in two separate stints. Kong was the assistant vice president responsible for patient and employee safety for the 11-hospital system.
“I want patient experience to be the centerpiece of this organization. We are selecting people who will give that particular aspect. If the patients are not engaged, the outcomes are not good,” Raju said in an interview Wednesday.
He added that recent leadership changes at Coney Island, with the departure of several executives, were not triggered by the negative publicity about patient safety.
“Whenever there are changes, people say that means somebody messed up, or something bad happened,” Raju said. “Any high-performing organization refreshes itself every two to three years. That's what we're trying to do.”
He said the system has changed leadership at Woodhull, Harlem, Queens, Elmhurst and North Central Bronx hospitals within the last few months, all with little fanfare.
“Because nothing newsworthy happened at those hospitals, those changes go unnoticed,” he said.
Regardless of the reshuffled hospital leadership, H&H faces a serious structural problem.
About 70% of its patients are covered by Medicaid or are uninsured, and declining government subsidies translates into lower reimbursement for the network. H&H also faces increasing competition from private hospitals for newly-insured patients.
Mayor Bill de Blasio kicked off a restructuring of the health system in late April with the unveiling of a 56-page plan that was short on details, but broadly outlined the system's strategy to reverse a projected $1.8 billion deficit by fiscal 2020. The system expects to end its fiscal year on June 30 with a $119 million cash balance, Raju told City Council members Tuesday during a budget hearing. A $497 million cash infusion by the city helped abate the system's cash crisis.
Raju expressed confidence H&H will be able to carry out its turnaround plan by 2020.
"In four years it can be done," he said. "The problem is people have to give it enough time for it to happen. I'm very happy the mayor has put the money behind it to give me a bridge."
Raju has staked much of the turnaround on improving the patient experience at the municipal health system. If hospitals reduce wait times and communicate well with patients, he reasons, more patients will enroll in the system's own insurance company, MetroPlus, and fewer will seek care at private hospitals.
But H&H has much work to do in that area. Coney Island received a two-star rating in Medicare's most-recent survey of patient experience, out of five stars. And only 56% of patients said they would definitely recommend the hospital, compared to a statewide average of 66% for all hospitals.
Rajkumar believes he is up for the challenge.
"I'm excited that I've been chosen to go there as a change agent, along with Mei as my partner," he said. "I've been part of transformation teams in the past where we change the culture of the hospital and regain the confidence of the community."
In addition to Rajkumar and Kong, Coney Island quietly added a number of executives in recent weeks, the system acknowledged. Dr. Wehbeh Wehbeh is the new chief medical officer; Barbara Campfield was appointed chief nursing executive; Dr. Mark William Edward Kindschuh became chair of emergency medicine; and Janice Nini is now associate director of nursing of the emergency department.
"Scarred Coney Island Hospital gets new leaders" originally appeared in Crain's New York Business.