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Published on August 07, 2016

After first week on the job, new hospital CEO remains ‘hopeful’ about health care’s future

New Lawrence Memorial Hospital CEO Russell Johnson is pictured on Aug. 4, 2016.

Photo by John Young

New Lawrence Memorial Hospital CEO Russell Johnson is pictured on Aug. 4, 2016.

By Joanna Hlavacek, Lawrence Journal World

If the headlines coming out of Topeka are any indication, Kansas health care providers don’t have much to smile about these days.

In May, Gov. Sam Brownback ordered cuts totaling $56.4 million to the state’s Medicaid program, reducing provider payments by 4 percent. On a local level, the cuts will cost Lawrence Memorial Hospital approximately $500,000 to $800,000 over the next fiscal year, according to estimates by the hospital’s chief financial officer.

By his own admission, Russell Johnson “probably shouldn’t be” optimistic about the changing landscape — both nationally and statewide — of the health care industry, but Johnson, who on Monday began his first week as president and CEO of Lawrence Memorial Hospital, is excited for the future.

“I am by nature,” he said of his inherently hopeful mindset. “A couple of people have kind of thoughtfully patted me on the back and said, ‘Oh, Russ.’ But you know, I think that’s part of our responsibility in the health care arena — to keep seeing if we can be involved in advocacy for our patients and for our communities.”

As a Colorado transplant, Johnson is new — or at least a bit rusty, considering he did spend his childhood in suburban Kansas City — to the nuances of Kansas politics. Perhaps, he speculates, that’s why he remains so “hopeful” about it all.

Sitting in his office Thursday afternoon, Johnson recounted his first week on the job, which, in addition to basics such as navigating the hospital halls and getting his printer hooked up, entailed a lot of listening — to hospital staff, LMH board members, community leaders and countless others.

On that day, Johnson still had about 80 people left on his to-meet list. The prospect (LMH currently employs some 1,500 staffers) didn’t seem to daunt him much. He’d get there, eventually.

Johnson, 57, is replacing longtime LMH CEO Gene Meyer, who retired earlier this year after 19 years on the job. Johnson knows he has big shoes to fill — when Johnson was in his 20s, Meyer hired him and worked alongside him at the former Spelman Memorial Hospital, serving for five years as a mentor to the younger man.

“Sometimes change is tough, but sometimes it opens new eyes or new doors,” said Cindy Yulich, who chairs the LMH board of trustees. “And I think having Russ’ experience and his lens to look through is going to be very helpful in how we tackle the issues that we face.”

The search for Meyer’s replacement began in August 2015, and by the time Johnson had been announced as his successor, the board of trustees counted 150 applicants from more than a dozen states. Johnson’s “collaborative” leadership style is partly what scored him the job, Yulich said.

“He’s strategic and he’s focused, but he’s also open to listening and taking it all in and coming around to a decision that’s mutually beneficial to all the stakeholders,” she added. The health care industry is venturing into unknown territory now, Yulich said, but with Johnson at the helm, she feels secure about LMH’s future.

Thanks in part to Meyer’s management over the last two decades, the hospital is in good shape, said Johnson, who most recently served as senior vice president of network development and outreach at Centura Health System in Englewood, Colo. Before that, he was CEO of San Luis Valley Regional Medical Center in Alamosa, Colo.

After three years at Centura, Johnson said he wanted to regain a sense of community and a personal connection to those served by the hospital. “In the health care area,” he said, “a community hospital means something slightly different than a big academic medical center or a small, rural hospital.” And LMH, in his opinion, is a “really fantastic community hospital.”

“It’s the employees’ connection and their sense of purpose and their commitment and loyalty,” Johnson said. “And that working here really matters because this is their home and this is their community, and they’re going to be taking care of friends and family.”

Lawrence, he’s happy to say, is now his home, too. Johnson grew up in Merriam, and both he and his wife, Isabel, still have family in the Kansas City area. It’s been a joy, he said, to see his brothers and parents on a more frequent basis.

In the coming months, Johnson plans to do more listening — talking to medical staffers, reviewing data and hopefully pinpointing the areas in Douglas County’s population that might need special attention from a health standpoint. He wants health care in Lawrence to take on a more preventive approach.

There are plenty of social efforts in the community working toward “a more fundamentally healthy” population, he said — Meals on Wheels, the Visiting Nurses Association and home care services, to name a few — but Johnson said he’d like to expand the hospital’s role in that mission.

“How do we, as an organization, reach deeper into the community to be partners with people who are already doing a lot of work and help leverage that with them?” he asks. “Not try to take it over, not try to duplicate it, but bring the enormous expertise and resources that hospitals have into a more engaging fashion.”

“And that,” he added, “is really exciting, I think.”

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