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Barnabas' Ostrowsky: Lawyers are key to running a successful hospital

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Barry Ostrowsky, president and CEO of Barnabas Health, started as a lawyer.
Barry Ostrowsky, president and CEO of Barnabas Health, started as a lawyer. - (PHOTO BY AARON HOUSTON)

Barnabas Health Chief Executive Barry Ostrowsky started his career as a health care attorney nearly 40 years ago — a start he views as the ideal training ground for the complex issues that confront a health care CEO.

Ostrowsky said the lawyers at Barnabas go well beyond dealing with legal issues as they arise, often deploying their expertise to push for changes that have improved the system's operations.

He sites the compliance unit at Barnabas, led by attorneys, as an example.

"Of all our functions that you would consider to be non-clinical, the compliance function has contributed the most to changing and enhancing the way we manage the business," he said.

Several years ago, he said compliance looked at how Barnabas could improve the way medical procedures are coded in order to strengthen its adherence to regulations governing the billing of medical claims. It came away with better ways to run the hospital.

"In order to do that, you have to get so deeply involved in understanding coding that out of that came a white paper from compliance that said, 'Look, we should be performing coding differently — not because there are regulatory issues but because it would be more productive,'" Ostrowsky said.

Health care law has come a long way since 1975, when Ostrowsky joined Brach Eichler.

Today, Brach Eichler has one of the largest health care law practices in the state, but that wasn't the case then.

"If you go back to five years before I became a lawyer, no one was practicing health care law," Ostrowsky said. "The closest thing you had to health care law was people defending malpractice cases."

In 1991, Ostrowsky left Brach Eichler to become general counsel of Saint Barnabas Medical Center. In 2012, he became CEO of Barnabas Health.

Through the years, he saw health care law evolve and grow in tandem with the increased government regulation and the business challenges of running a successful hospital system.

"If you were going to practice health care law, you also had to understand the dynamics of commerce and business," he said. "You had to merge the expertise you had in the health care area with more or less the general concepts of business law."

This includes mergers and acquisitions, which have transformed the health care landscape in New Jersey as stand-alone hospitals seek to survive by aligning with big systems.

When he was at Brach Eichler, Ostrowsky recalled getting a call from a hospital CEO who told Ostrowsky he was going to hire an in-house counsel for the first time.

Ostrowsky surprised the man with his response.

"I said, 'That's a great idea,'" he recalled.

When the CEO asked if he was worried there would be less work for Brach Eichler, Ostrowsky said just the opposite would happen: The new in-house counsel would identify legal issues that needed to be addressed and would continue to depend on Brach Eichler to supplement the work being done by the in-house legal department.

His assumptions proved correct.

E-mail to: beth@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @bethfitzgerald8

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Beth Fitzgerald

Beth Fitzgerald

Beth Fitzgerald reports on health care, small business and higher education. She joined NJBIZ in 2008 after a 34-year career at the Star-Ledger and has been reporting on business in New Jersey since 1978. Her email is beth@njbiz.com and she is @bethfitzgerald8 on Twitter.

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