Health Care Hall of Fame - 2019
The healthcare industry continues to experience transformation at a feverish pace, with ongoing consolidation, a realignment of operations away from hospitals, and surging demand for more consumer choice.
But for longtime health system executive John King, a much earlier round of industry change is what launched his career in the 1960s. Back then, “system” was still an emerging concept in the industry, and the same could be said for the profession of healthcare administrator.
King, 80, whose professional path took him to faith-based systems in Minneapolis, South Bend, Ind., Chicago and Portland, Ore., in an arc spanning nearly 40 years, has been inducted into the Health Care Hall of Fame for his lifetime achievements not only in building healthcare organizations but in community service during and after his career.
For King, it all started in the Twin Cities, where he earned his graduate degree in healthcare administration at the University of Minnesota and completed his post-grad residency at Fairview Community Hospitals.
“Healthcare administration was pretty new at the time. There were, I think, only about six graduate programs in the country, so it was something that was still emerging as a profession,” King said. “The timing was quite good for us just starting out.”
James Hamilton, founder of the University of Minnesota MHA program and its director for many years, is also a Hall of Famer and was one of King’s early mentors.
The King File
2005: Distinguished Service Award, American Hospital Association
1999: National Leadership Award, B’nai B’rith International
1998: Chairman, American Hospital Association
1998: Regents’ Quality in Healthcare Award, American College of Healthcare Executives
1991-99: President and CEO, Legacy Health System, Portland, Ore.
1980-91: President and CEO, Evangelical Health Systems, Oak Brook, Ill.
1979-80: President, Holy Cross Health System, South Bend, Ind.
1969-79: Administrator/senior vice president, Fairview Community Hospitals, Minneapolis
1967-69: Administrator/assistant professor, University of Massachusetts Medical School
1963-67: Assistant administrator, Fairview Hospital, Minneapolis
1962: James A. Hamilton Award, University of Minnesota
King said it was fortuitous for him and his colleagues at Fairview that the CEO, Carl Platou, was considered an innovator and hands-off leader who was willing to delegate a lot of responsibility to his young staff.
Also in the administrative ranks of Fairview at that time was Don Wegmiller, another Hall of Famer who also made his mark building and transforming health systems. When King arrived, Wegmiller had just finished his residency at Fairview.
“Minnesota was a great place to launch careers, no doubt about it,” Wegmiller said. “We were given responsibilities way beyond what we should have been given, and had a lot of latitude to develop ideas on our own.”
He called Platou the “antithesis of a micromanager.”
One trend that played out as King was rising through the ranks at Fairview was the concept of the satellite hospital, designed to serve the burgeoning suburban population. Such expansion was already happening with branch banking and shopping malls in suburbia, but hospitals were slow to act, King said.
“It was all about going to where the customers were,” Wegmiller added. “Today you would say, ‘Well duh, of course that’s where you go.’ But 50 years ago it wasn’t ‘duh.’ It was more like, ‘Really? That’s kind of weird.’ ”
The addition of a suburban hospital meant new responsibilities and growth for the two young Fairview executives. Wegmiller would move to the suburban campus while King was given charge of the flagship operations in downtown Minneapolis. He would stay on at the system until 1979.
King’s next stop would be the Hoosier State, as president of Holy Cross Health System, but it would only be a one-year stint.
In 1980, King moved to the Chicago market to become CEO of Evangelical Health Systems, an organization that was run by the United Church of Christ, part of an association of 30 congregations of various sizes.
Evangelical included hospitals on Chicago’s South Side as well as suburban facilities. Immediately King had to deal with integration issues involving the system’s hospitals as well as a cumbersome governance structure.
“I had a board at each hospital. I decided that those boards were getting in the way of creating systemization and integration, because they all had their way of wanting to do things.” King said in an oral history published by the American Hospital Association. “I was able to convince the (system) board to eliminate those local boards so that it made all those governance decisions.”
King said he had great relationships with the board members, most of whom were from the churches, and admired them for seeing Evangelical not just as a healthcare delivery system but as an integral part of their mission. “I think it really gave us a sense of unity and a sense of purpose.”
After 11 years of leading Evangelical (which would become Advocate Health Care after a merger in 1995), King headed to the Pacific Northwest to become CEO of Legacy Health System.
The Portland, Ore., system was operating in a highly competitive market, vying with Kaiser Permanente and what was then the Sisters of Providence, with each holding roughly a one-third share. But Legacy was in third place and struggling, King said.
When King arrived at Legacy, the system was just 18 months old, the product of a merger between Good Samaritan and Metropolitan Hospitals. The man who had been named CEO died suddenly of a heart attack shortly after the deal closed. Because of struggles integrating the systems and their hospitals, the board decided they needed an outsider to take the reins.
King was chosen for the role in 1991 and immediately went to work consolidating numerous governing boards (each hospital had one), streamlining operations and ultimately having to downsize the organization to become more competitive.
While the top three players in the market were competitors, they also found ways to collaborate, King said.
“By the time I got to Portland, the concept of community health was further advanced. Today it would be called population health. We competed, but we also had an organization in which the three systems collaboratively worked with Blue Cross, the major insurer and the public health department,” King said. “It was a very healthy and exciting thing to see.”
It was toward the tail end of his tenure at Legacy that King served as chair of the American Hospital Association in 1998 after many years on various committees and as a member of the board of trustees.
King said it was a tumultuous time for hospitals and the AHA because they were still grappling with the rapid growth and dominance of systems. “There was some tension between the individual hospitals, especially the small rural hospitals, and the systems that were beginning to have more influence in the industry and power within the AHA,” he said.
It was also the period after the failed attempt at healthcare reform during the Clinton administration, when the industry faced other tensions, noted Rick Wade, who has known King for many years and worked closely with him as the AHA’s former senior vice president of communications.
“One thing the AHA was grappling with was what kind of reforms hospitals themselves could work to achieve,” Wade said. “What could we inspire the members to do? What issues were plaguing hospitals in terms of public perception?” He said King had the unique ability to advance that dialogue, given his reputation and credibility with the membership.
Regarding King’s lifelong achievements, Wade said, “It’s as if the Legacy system’s name foretold what he would accomplish there and in Minnesota and Illinois.”