Columbus Regional Health CEO Chuck Stark resigns

Columbus Regional Health President and Chief Executive Officer Charles A. “Chuck” Stark has resigned effective immediately, the company confirmed Friday.

Stark, who assumed his job on Feb. 6, 2012, has driven massive changes at Columbus Regional, which operates the region’s largest hospital, Midtown Medical Center. He offered his resignation at a called Columbus Regional board meeting late Thursday, according to a news release put out by the company.

The board appointed Columbus Regional Chief Operating Officer Scott Hill as interim CEO. He is expected to continue as COO, according to Columbus Regional.

“I believe this is the right time to transition to a new chief executive officer,” Stark said in the release. “It has been a privilege to have had the opportunity to lead Columbus Regional Health through a dynamic time in health care, and I know the institution has a very bright future. I thank the directors, the management team, our medical and administrative staff for their support and confidence during my tenure.”

Senior Vice President and General Counsel L.M. Layfield III said Stark told the board he planned to work in a new business venture started by his son, Conner.

Stark could not be reached for comment and did not return a call left at his Columbus Regional office.

He came to Columbus Regional from Firelands Regional Health System in Sandusky, Ohio, where he was chief executive officer. He replaced longtime Columbus Regional CEO Larry Sanders.

Columbus Regional is a health care system that employs about 2,800 full- and part-time people. Aside from Midtown Medical Center, it also operates Doctors Specialty Hospital, Northside Medical Center, the John B. Amos Cancer Center and Tidwell Cancer Treatment Center. It also is in a joint venture with HealthSouth in Phenix City at the Regional Rehabilitation Hospital.

“We are grateful to Chuck Stark for his years of service and very much admire his record of accomplishments,” said Eugene (Gene) Demonet, chairman of the Columbus Regional Health board of directors, whose term expires at the end of this month. “We are grateful Chuck created the strategic direction that will propel our organization forward. Our organization, and by extension the entire Columbus region, will be a better place because of Chuck’s ideas and initiatives. We are sorry to see him go but we respect his decision to move on.”

Driving change

Since arriving in Columbus in February 2012, Stark made a number of dramatic and — for some in the community — unsettling moves in his quest to make the hospital more efficient, profitable and patient friendly.

“Our vision is to become nationally recognized for our clinical outcomes and for our world-famous customer service,” Stark said in an interview several months after taking charge of the system. “It’s very simple. That’s much different than the lengthy vision that we had before.”

There have been big changes in the management team since Stark’s arrival. Many of the company’s top executives have left or retired. Only Layfield and Wayne Joiner, senior vice president of human resources, remain on the management team.

Stark’s rapid-fire changes were across the board. A major one was the decision to change the names of the system and its hospitals — which they had held for decades — and alter or add to some of their functions.

Columbus Regional Healthcare System became Columbus Regional Health, adopting the tagline, “Pursue Your Healthy.” The system’s flagship hospital, The Medical Center, became Midtown Medical Center, with the system receiving state approval to perform a basic cardiac procedure — installing heart stents — something previously done locally only at St. Francis Hospital.

Stark also pulled the trigger on turning Hughston Hospital — which always had been an orthopedic surgery facility — into a traditional hospital with an emergency room and plans to begin delivering babies there. Though the latter hasn’t been approved by the state, the hospital’s name was changed to Northside Medical Center.

Midtown Medical Center has long been the primary baby delivery facility in Columbus, with its high-risk nursery. St. Francis last fall resumed delivery of babies after shutting that department down more than three decades ago.

Doctors Hospital wasn’t immune from the changes, being renamed Doctors Specialty Hospital. The facility, adjacent to Midtown Medical Center, stopped delivering babies and closed its emergency room after the completion of a major upgrade of Midtown Medical’s emergency department, which includes a regional trauma center.

Plans included relocating Columbus Specialty Hospital from Midtown Medical to Doctors Specialty Hospital, with the possibility of moving Northside Medical Center’s inpatient physical rehabilitation services to Doctors.

Reworking the image

Stark even decided Columbus Regional’s basic image needing reworking, all the way down to removal of stained ceiling tiles and worn wallpaper and improvement of the parking areas. The CEO said he wanted to make a positive impression on patients and families using the system’s facilities.

Stark, in the 2012 interview, said he keenly understood his role at Columbus Regional was to set the vision and the course for delivering what he called a “pristine experience.” The CEO said he understood some in the medical community were possibly uncomfortable because of his focus on cleanliness, customer service, initial impressions and change in general.

“Maybe that wasn’t what they thought was important, but that is what’s important,” he said of those first steps as the system’s chief executive. “For some it’s uncomfortable. For many it’s a welcome opportunity to accentuate all of the positive that is here and that my predecessors had pulled together. But now it’s a chance to build upon that.”

Amid the restructuring and Stark’s departure, Columbus Regional Health is also facing a federal whistleblower lawsuit against its high-profile and successful cancer center.

Richard Barker, the former administrative director of the John B. Amos Cancer Center, alleges that the center and its physicians — including well-respected Medical Director Andrew Pippas — repeatedly and knowingly overbilled government insurers.

The suit was filed in May 2012 in U.S. District Court, Middle District of Georgia, and is ongoing.

Lengthy search

Stark’s hiring at Columbus Regional in 2012 followed a nine-month search for a new executive to replace Sanders, who in February 2011 announced his retirement as chairman and CEO of the system. Sanders had been with Columbus Regional for three decades, leading it for 22 years.

At the time of Stark’s hiring, Demonet praised him, saying “he brings a wealth of experience to his new position as well as extensive accomplishments in facility and service line growth and development, physician relations, quality and patient safety, and customer and employee satisfaction.”

Shortly after Stark’s arrival here, Lance Duke resigned as CEO of The Medical Center, with Stark bringing in Ryan Chandler, chief operating officer at Firelands Regional, to run the hospital.

Stark’s two-year stint at Columbus Regional also included the decision to get out of the nursing home business by selling the operations — but not the property — of Hamilton House on Fifth Avenue to Muscogee Manor, with plans ultimately to level the structure and redevelop the land later.

The CEO also reached out to competitors, with Columbus Regional and St. Francis launching a “partnership” to improve cancer treatment for women locally and to take part in clinical trials. Columbus Regional’s John B. Amos Cancer Center and the St. Francis Center for Surgical Care were a major component of the effort, with hopes that the cancer program would improve to a high enough level to keep patients from traveling to other cities, such as Atlanta and Birmingham, Ala., for care and treatment.

Stark also struck what he called a “strategic alliance” with The Hughston Clinic, an orthopedic care facility located in north Columbus, to begin orthopedic treatment and surgery inside Midtown Medical Center’s trauma center. It was aimed at making sure severely injured patients have around-the-clock access to orthopedic surgical specialists.

Hill will assume the interim job of leading the organization. He joined Columbus Regional as chief operating officer in October 2012 after serving as CEO of LewisGale Hospital Montgomery in Blacksburg, Va.

“As interim CEO, I look forward to continuing the vision of Columbus Regional Health becoming nationally recognized for clinical outcomes and world‐famous service,” Hill said in the release. “It’s a direction set by Chuck Stark and the leadership team. It is a strategy for growth and sustainability that will be achieved by an amazing team of professional medical staff, management, employees and volunteers.”