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New Atlantic Health chair sees plenty of challenges — and opportunities — ahead

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Robert Toohey, new chair of the Atlantic Health System board of trustees.
Robert Toohey, new chair of the Atlantic Health System board of trustees. - ()

Robert Toohey has spent much of the past decade watching the growth of Atlantic Health System —from two hospitals to an organization with five medical centers and more than 600 providers — and he has watched that growth as not just an area resident, but a member of Atlantic's board of trustees.

His vantage point just got even better.

Toohey, a New Vernon resident, earlier this month was named chair of the board of the Morristown-based system, succeeding Karen Kessler after she held the post for five years.

The Verizon executive assumes the role at a critical time for Atlantic. The organization recently named a new chief executive, Brian Gragnolati, to succeed longtime CEO Joseph Trunfio — and it’s a time in which health care systems are grappling with new models of care, increased regulation and questions of consolidation with other systems and providers.

Toohey, president of Verizon Digital Media Services, feels he can bring the business acumen that will help Atlantic’s board and its staff navigate those challenges.

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“As the system has grown, (it’s a question of) how does it come together and really bring a complete system of care, if you will, to the community,” Toohey said. “And when we use the word ‘system’ … I think that’s one of the things, from my experience, I can help with.

“You’ll have change in how people operate, you’ll have change in how things progress as any system grows and scales,” he added. “And as those things happen, I think my background of dealing with growth and scale and larger company issues are experiences I can bring.”

That will be critical as the organization — which includes Morristown, Overlook, Newton and Chilton medical centers and Goryeb Children’s Hospital — now looks to “really create one Atlantic system.”

Toohey discussed his new role and the future of the health system in a recent Q&A with NJBIZ.

NJBIZ: Let’s start at the high level. You’ve been a board member since late 2007 — what do you see as the role of a health system’s board of trustees and of its chair?

Robert Toohey: I think it’s a great opportunity, especially when you look at this industry and what’s happening. The board, to me, and the board chair have a role … in aligning and providing the right governance and oversight to the system. But, more importantly, I think we have a great opportunity to bring many experts to the table for Brian and the leadership team to really leverage as they need, to help them shape and guide the system.

Lastly … there are many of our board members who are strong linkages to the various communities we serve. So I think it’s a great extension to bringing people on that are part of the community, because our whole board is part of the various communities that we serve.

NJBIZ: So, then, what are some of your goals as board chair?

RT: I think, real simply, from my perspective, it’s to continue the success that Atlantic has had. … I think Joe (Trunfio) and the previous board chairs have really created a great set of assets and people extending and building the Atlantic portfolio. And I think now we’re at a point where we have a great opportunity, and something we value very much is really making sure that we bring a system of care and making sure that every community we serve has that right care and gets that service, they receive the right care in the right place at the right time — of course, at the right price.

But those are just bullets. I think we really have a point in time where we can now leverage Atlantic as one brand and bring it all together so that, when you enter the system, when you’re there, we know what your patient experience is going to be no matter where you are. So I think that’s a great opportunity — it’s one of the keys that I think we’re all as a board and as a management team focused on in going to that next level.

Brian A. Gragnolati, CEO of Atlantic Health System.
Brian A. Gragnolati, CEO of Atlantic Health System. - ()

NJBIZ: You led the search committee that brought Brian Gragnolati here as your new CEO and president earlier this year. What did you see in him, and how do you plan to support him?

RT: Brian brings tremendous leadership now as we move into the next generation of what we’re trying to do as a system, and I think we’re helping him do that and grow a team that’s really going to work together.

I spent a lot of time before we even went on the search with our board members and with folks in the community. … So we took this very seriously and took the right amount of time that we thought we would need to make sure we had the right candidate for the next (10 years).

And what we saw in Brian was tremendous leadership from the standpoint of understanding, ‘What are the challenges that we see in health care going forward?’ and thoughts around those challenges; leadership from the standpoint of his national presence and what he’s done at different levels; and also his leadership in just how he runs an organization and how he brings people together and how really looks to do that. We thought that was very important as we went ahead.

I mentioned the word ‘governance.’ You then have your own governance and leadership. Any time you have a system and you’re trying to take it to that next level and continue that growth, it takes a very strong CEO to pull that together and really get the teams to work together. … And he really hit all marks. We’re super excited about having Brian and what he can bring — and about his background and his previous role. He’s been in community hospitals. He had a very senior position in Johns Hopkins. He brought a really nice mix of experience along with how he’s going to lead and bring together.

And he fit very well culturally. I think you’ll always want to make sure there’s a match. And we’re very excited about it.

NJBIZ: Atlantic is now awaiting a state review of its plan to acquire Hackettstown Regional Medical Center. Can you talk about the role of acquisitions, consolidation and potential partnerships with other health systems as part of the future of the health system?

RT: This is a challenge that every system has out there today. And this is one that is probably a board topic and a senior management topic often. There’s no ‘Yes, systems need to come together’ or ‘No, systems don’t need to come together.’ I think you really have to look at — before people talk about coming together — what are you trying to solve for? And I think it’s important that that’s what people focus on, because I read a lot that everybody is trying to merge with everybody, but what are they trying to solve?

I use this term ‘system of care’ — we’ve kind of been talking about this a lot as of late as Brian has come in and (about) looking at how we’re going to do all that and meeting all the challenges in the communities. Sometimes, people think, you bring the systems together to lower costs, sometimes they come together for expansion, but it has to fit into your overall strategy. And if it fits into the strategy and it makes sense, and you think you can still maintain the care you need to provide in that community and expand, then there’s probably things you need to look at. I think you’re going to see a lot more in the landscape over the years as we go forward with folks who either may have been competitive — not just systems — but you look across the board in any kind of service in the industry. There will be people working together and they may be competing together.

So there’s going to be a balance, but I truly think if everybody has the same goal in mind — that the reason we’re here is to drive and make sure folks get the best care in that community — that’s what we should think about first to see if these things make sense.

NJBIZ: What are you proud of achieving in your time on the board, and is there anything that you feel like you’ve learned since you started?

RT: We’re very proud of where Atlantic is today and what has happened over the years. I know for myself as a board member, where Atlantic has come and reaching its vision and continuing to grow on that, we feel very good about that. And I think the whole board and the management team should be proud of that.

One of the things a lot of folks talk about in the industry and trying new things and bringing in partnerships. We’re looking at different things and partnerships. When we look at AllSpire (an alliance with other health systems aimed at improving coordination), is that how we can shape that and how we can work together with other systems? We have one of the largest (accountable care organizations) — we’re bringing together quite a few doctors. I think that’s a learning opportunity for the whole system: How do the systems and the doctors all come together for success, and I think we have a great start to that. And I think Atlantic can make a real difference in that area.

Personally, that is one I think I’ve learned and also see the opportunity in front of us — how systems themselves, Atlantic and the physicians that are part of that system, can come together to create the really the best care in each community.

I think we’re feeling very good. We’re in a great position and there’s a lot of opportunity ahead. There’s challenges for everyone and I think we’re ready to hit those head on.

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