MUSKEGON — His goal was to become a high school counselor, much like the one who nurtured and helped him during his teen-age years at Muskegon High School.
Although he ended up on a different career path, Roger Spoelman likens his role to that of a school counselor. But rather than helping students find their way in life or better themselves, he’s leading an organization whose mission is to better the health of the community — and in the end fulfilling his personal goal of interacting with and helping people.
“Health care touches the very core of everybody,” said Spoelman, the president and CEO of Mercy General Health Partners, the organization forged from the merger three years ago of the former Muskegon General Hospital and Muskegon Mercy Healthcare System.
Today he oversees a health system that includes two main campuses, 10 physician offices, a medical clinic and a nursing home. Mercy General Health Partners, with more than 2,400 employees, generated 2000 revenues of $290 million.
A Muskegon native who twice has moved away and returned to the area, Spoelman initially began working toward becoming a high school guidance counselor.
After earning a degree in sociology in 1974 at Trinity College in Deerfield, Ill., he returned home from college and took a job as a counselor with Youth for Christ, a Christian outreach aimed at teen-agers. At the same time he taught swimming at the YMCA in Muskegon.
When the YMCA needed a fitness director, Spoelman was urged to apply. He got the job.
Spoelman later enrolled in a certificate program the YMCA offered at Siena Heights College in Adrian to become a senior director, while at the same time taking summer graduate classes at the University of Wisconsin for a master’s degree in adult exercise and cardiac rehab.
He completed both in 1979, earning his master’s degree and the YMCA certification, the latter of which led to an opportunity to become executive director at the YMCA in Plattsburgh, N.Y.
After 18 months in Plattsburgh, Spoelman received a call from Dirk Wagner, the administrator at Muskegon General Hospital. Wagner wanted to know if Spoelman wanted to come back to Muskegon to set up a cardiac rehabilitation lab at Muskegon General.
Spoelman, who had undertaken a similar project a few years earlier while working at the YMCA in Muskegon, accepted the offer and moved back home in 1981. In the following years at Muskegon General, he took on new roles with growing levels of responsibility in marketing and communications.
In 1987, he was named chief executive at Muskegon General, an osteopathic hospital founded in 1942. It was in that position at Muskegon General that Spoelman played a key role in the initial joint operating agreement with Mercy Hospital in 1995, and the eventual merger in 1998.
Seeds for the merger were planted years ago when Spoelman and then-Mercy Hospital CEO Sandy Bruce began talking about the possibilities of collaboration, rather than competition. Those discussions evolved into an exploration of the potential benefits of operating the two hospitals together, culminating in the signing of a joint operating agreement in July 1995.
Spoelman recalls waking up the day after the agreement was signed, feeling a sense of relief from the burden of competition and the potential he believed the joint venture held. That need for more collaboration among health care providers is a value that Spoelman holds deep, seeing it as a better way to provide care in an era of rising costs.
“There is so much benefit in working together. Instead of competing, we could focus on what we can do to make this community healthier,” he said.
The two hospitals took the arrangement further in January 1997 when they merged their clinical operations and medical staffs.
A year later, they executed a full asset merger that led to the formation of Mercy General Health Partners. The merger led to consolidation of many services, including the emergency rooms, at the former Mercy campus on Sherman Boulevard to the eliminate the duplication of efforts.
The former Muskegon General campus has since become an outpatient center, with a 140-unit independent and assisted-living center and the Medi Center walk-in medical clinic. An ongoing renovation will provide space for a dental practice and family health center.
The merger has generated annual cost savings of $8 million to $10 million. While there was apprehension and occasional difficulties in pulling off the merger, Spoelman looks back at it as the right thing to do.
In the end, he said, Mercy and Muskegon General came together in a way the complemented each other’s mission and role in the community.
“There was a lot of alignment in a lot of ways,” said Spoelman, who was named president and CEO of Mercy General in 1998 when Sandy Bruce left for a position with another hospital owned by corporate parent Trinity Health.
For now, Mercy General is focusing on the upcoming development of a new $5 million emergency department at the Sherman Boulevard campus to handle the growing number of ER visits annually.
That project, as well as other challenges ahead for the health system, keeps the 48-year-old Spoelman in Muskegon. While he’s had “very intriguing” job prospects elsewhere, “we have stuff to do yet” in Muskegon.
“We’ve sort of declared victory over the merger, but we’ve got some things to do yet,” he said.