An open letter to Spectrum Health’s new CEO

Congratulations to Tina Freese Decker on being named to take the helm of Spectrum Health. Having risen through the ranks at Spectrum, she had the opportunity to see the good, bad and ugly. Now she can capitalize on her experience and consolidate the gains made by Spectrum, promote the good, eliminate the bad and rectify the ugly. So, here are some gratuitous suggestions for her:

Keep it local

Understand that Spectrum Health grew out of community expressions. West Michigan’s health care long had been a leader among state and national communities. But local community leaders, tired of senseless rivalries among its major hospitals, urged the hospitals to get together and concentrate their strengths to better serve the community.

Spectrum Health owes its existence to many community leaders who saw a great opportunity for the West Michigan health care scene to reach new heights. One of its guiding principles was a “local first” mentality. Initially, a stated goal of Spectrum was to keep the efficiencies of West Michigan within the area, returning the benefits of thrift, great care and low prices to the community that created it.

West Michigan has long been admired for its strong work ethic. Conscientious employees believe in returning a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay. Employees of Butterworth and Blodgett hospitals, which combined to form Spectrum Health, were instrumental in building the two fine institutions that had national reputations.

Yet in recent years, somehow those local people who were good enough to develop the renowned institutions seemingly weren’t good enough to run them, and we entertained a host of administrative staff from other areas who brought a different ethic. This has resulted in changed senses of accountability.

Restore price leadership

West Michigan, and Spectrum’s components, previously had a solid reputation for being price leaders in the state and nation. That seems to have changed in more recent times, and it’s time to bring back the price advantages that West Michigan had enjoyed.

At one time, Spectrum’s charges were the lowest in the state. Since then, prices have gone upward — to being in the “bottom quartile,” then to being in the “lower half,” and now Spectrum claims to be “competitive.” Compared to other areas, West Michigan seems to have lost its price advantages, and this is not returning efficiencies to the community. It’s time to restore the price advantages. Current profit margins and the opportunity to more efficiently use assets could provide the opportunity to reduce charges.

Spectrum operates a network of satellite hospitals, and it should use them to provide cost-effective care in local communities, rather than bringing some patients for routine care to its higher-priced specialized (tertiary) institutions. In fact, most hospital admissions are for routine care, not for specialized care. The tertiary institutions should be saved for tertiary work.

Work with others

Spectrum Health provides an insurance carrier — Priority Health — that was specifically intended to keep local price advantages within West Michigan. Somehow, it now services larger parts of the state’s population far outside Spectrum’s service area. This is not keeping things local. Additionally, Spectrum appears to favor Priority Health to the detriment of other insurers. Other insurers purport difficulty in obtaining contracts with Spectrum that come close to the deals it makes with its own insurance company. This is not fair to customers.

Local care long had been defined by recognition of specific strengths by various health care providers and sharing among them. Collaborative relationships among medical practices and institutions had been a hallmark of West Michigan. Several local centers of excellence had evolved. Spectrum’s administrative leadership, however, seems to have developed a belief that only what it provides is worthy, rather than recognizing others’ strengths.

This has led to some needless duplication of some services that is not only costly, but undermines quality of care. Collaboration and referrals that recognize all strengths wherever they are is needed once again. For example, world-class rehabilitation is available at Mary Free Bed, but Spectrum’s employed physicians are purportedly discouraged from referring there. Physicians should be free to refer their patients to the most appropriate provider, regardless of ownership.

Cooperation is also needed in medical education and research. Spectrum may have used its large market position to jostle and divide the local inter-hospital medical education and research programs that had been working together for decades.

Restore the servant mentality

The biggest opportunity Freese Decker has before her is the chance to restore the servant mentality to the institutions. Initially, our hospitals were organized by local leaders to serve their communities. The community leaders with names like Butterworth, Blodgett, Meijer and DeVos never intended their gifts to create a local monopoly to the detriment of others.

They took part in local happenings and sought to advance community interests. They were responding to community needs. But in more recent times, Spectrum seems to have taken on a mentality of dictating rather than asking. It has used its size to cast a dominating image in the community. 

Regardless, looking ahead, the future for Freese Decker is bright, and we wish her the very best.

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