During the pandemic, many health system and hospital executives had to make extremely difficult decisions for their patients and their staff. Candice Saunders, president and CEO of Wellstar Health System, one of Georgia’s largest systems, was no different. Her boldest move came in determining how to support 25,000 employees while maintaining her organization’s financial viability.
WHAT WAS YOUR RISKIEST DECISION? The pandemic has taken a significant toll on the financial status of hospitals and health systems across the nation—including Wellstar. By May, the not-for-profit system anticipated a $400 million to $600 million loss through 2020. Although the CARES Act provided welcome aid, the funding only covered a portion of the financial gap.
As a result, Wellstar had to implement a resiliency plan that included an immediate freeze on hiring, except for essential personnel; eliminating all contract labor, except for essential personnel; reducing discretionary purchased services; pausing capital expenditures; eliminating overtime; eliminating variable compensation plans; asking executive director and above leaders to take a voluntary pay reduction, and other cost saving measures including furloughs and reduced work hours as a result of reduced patient volumes. We also made the difficult decision to freeze our defined-benefit pension plan and replace it with a market competitive defined-contribution plan. We intended to make this change in 2021; however, the timeline was moved up due to the financial challenges of COVID-19.
WHY WAS IT RISKY? Based on feedback from our staff, we knew we had to make significant investments to care for our own during the pandemic. We expanded child and elder care support, offered free meals, provided pay continuation for impacted providers and team members, launched our 24/7 help hotline to support the mental health needs of our team members, and provided virtual learning support when children did not return to schools in the fall. This at a time when financial stability was seriously compromised by the circumstances. Also, although we factored in financial modeling and input from our leaders across the system, our resiliency plan held no guarantees.
For example, we had no insight into ongoing impacts of the pandemic, when and if patient volumes would return to normal levels, how much more government funding we might receive, and when team members who had been furloughed or flexed off would return based on the resumption of services and volumes. These are all risks that Wellstar undertook so that we would have the human and financial resources to continue caring for our communities.
WHAT WAS THE OUTCOME? Our resiliency plan stabilized our system and many of the additional cost savings measures, including the return of furloughed and flexed team members, ended within the target time frame.
WHAT WAS THE RESPONSE FROM THOSE INVOLVED? We are stronger and even more responsive to the needs of our workforce and our patients. Remote work, ongoing health and wellness resources, and telemedicine solutions have become a part of the fabric of Wellstar.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU SHARE WITH EXECUTIVES IN SIMILAR POSITIONS? Listen to the people you serve—providers, team members, patients and communities. This is where you will get the greatest insight and guidance about how to navigate difficult decisions. If the risk you take is informed by the people it will impact, and you always keep their best interests in mind, you are better equipped to drive positive outcomes.
CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR LEADERSHIP STYLE? My career began at the bedside as a critical-care nurse, which has been a significant influence in how I lead and collaborate. Caring for seriously ill patients taught me the importance of compassionate, quality and personalized care for every person, every time. That requires pausing and listening to what people need and want, especially in their most trying times.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE IT? The greatest compliment I can receive from providers, team members and communities is that I am listening to their needs and we are providing compassionate, people-centric care. That is what Wellstar is all about: PeopleCare.