D-H Names Hospital Executive From Massachusetts as New CEO

  • Dr. Joanne Mather Conroy has been named to be Dartmouth-Hitchcock's new chief executive, replacing CEO James Weinstein as the head of New Hampshire’s largest private employer. (Courtesy photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/15/2017 9:57:45 AM
Modified: 6/16/2017 3:32:30 PM

Lebanon — The Dartmouth-Hitchcock health system on Thursday named a Dartmouth College alumna who currently leads a hospital near Boston as its new chief executive.

Dr. Joanne Mather Conroy, an anesthesiologist and 1977 Dartmouth graduate, will replace outgoing CEO James Weinstein as the head of New Hampshire’s largest private employer and sole academic medical center, following a unanimous board vote to appoint Conroy to the post at a special meeting on Wednesday.

The 61-year-old Conroy has served as CEO of Lahey Hospital and Medical Center in Burlington, Mass., since 2014.

The academic medical center with 327 beds is affiliated with Tufts University School of Medicine. By comparison, Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital, D-H’s flagship hospital in Lebanon, has 396 inpatient beds.

Conroy said her interest in joining the D-H health system — which has an annual operating budget of $2 billion and employs 12,000 people systemwide — stems from her time in Washington, D.C., as chief health care officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges.

It was during those nearly six years, concluding in 2014, that she saw the way the Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care helped to shift public policy, she said in a conference call from Massachusetts. The atlas, which uses Medicare data to show variations in how medical resources are distributed in the United States, helped Conroy rethink the path to a better health care system.

“It made people think about how much care was right,” she said.

“I used to think that great health care was a product of sound health policy.”

But she came to realize that “we’re never going to be able to have really a health care system that can be financially solvent until we actively involve patients as real partners,” she said. “Dartmouth has been a leader in trying to involve patients at critical junctures in their care.”

The interest in national policy is something Conroy, who will start her new job on Aug. 7, shares with her predecessor. Weinstein, who will depart at the end of this month after 5½ years in the CEO seat, emphasized in a late March interview with the Valley News that his aim was always to make D-H “one of the best quality organizations in the United States.”

Over the past year, however, that overriding goal was muddied by financial strains and public controversies including two years of operating deficits, 84 layoffs, departures of high-ranking executives and rumbles of discontent among doctors, nurses and staff.

D-H is “back on track,” Anne-Lee Verville, the chairwoman of D-H’s board of trustees and co-chairwoman of the CEO search committee, said in Thursday’s call.

Verville, a former chief financial officer of IBM’s U.S. Marketing Group and a former IBM chief information officer, said she anticipates D-H will end the fiscal year on June 30 with a slight profit.

“We will achieve the goals that we set for this current year,” she said.

Verville declined to offer details about Conroy’s compensation. In the fiscal year that ended last June 30, Weinstein earned $1.5 million, according to D-H’s tax filings.

Bigger picture, to address reimbursements that continue to fall short of the cost of service in the future, Conroy said she will look to the medical staff to find areas where things can be done more efficiently.

“A lot of the issues that could affect your financial stability have to do with how efficient your processes are,” she said.

Verville said that in talking with people who know Conroy it became clear that one of her strengths is her collaborative approach. She clearly enjoys working on teams with colleagues and works to bring agreement within the organization.

“Those are the key characteristics that we were looking for,” said Verville. These skills helped Conroy stand out from a crowd of more than 45 applicants and two finalists, Verville said.

Once on board, the first challenge Conroy said she aims to tackle is creating a system with D-H’s affiliates, which include New London Hospital, Mt. Ascutney Hospital in Windsor, Cheshire Medical Center in Keene and Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital in Lebanon.

Conroy plans to answer the question, “How are we going to leverage our strengths?” she said.

Leaders of the affiliates were involved in the search process, said Bruce King, the chief executive of New London Hospital. In addition, the chairwoman of New London’s board of trustees Susan Reeves, who recently became D-H’s new chief nursing executive, sat on the search committee.

“It’s very exciting news,” King said of Conroy’s selection. “Joanne stood out from the crowd in terms of some of the things that I think were relevant and meaningful.”

For example, King said he was encouraged by Conroy’s experience in New England and knowledge of the region’s insurance markets.

In addition, while at Lahey, Conroy helped build relationships with smaller community hospitals, King said.

Overall, King said, Conroy will bring fresh leadership at a difficult time. He said he was glad that both finalists were external. (D-H officials declined to release the name of other candidates).

King noted that the opportunity presented by a leadership change doesn’t happen often at D-H. During his 30 years with the hospital system, there have been just four different leaders, he said.

In Conroy’s case, King said she has a wide breadth of knowledge of the different ways health care is delivered across the country through her experience with the Association of American Medical Colleges.

“She doesn’t have any preconceived notion of how Dartmouth should move forward,” he said.

Similarly, Alice Peck Day’s chief executive Susan Mooney said she was “very favorably impressed” when she met Conroy during the interview process.

Mooney said she is hopeful that Conroy’s combination of academic theory and practical experience leading a health system will help D-H move toward Weinstein’s vision of a sustainable health system.

She also praised the way the D-H board approached Conroy’s hiring.

“The board had a real plan and they were inclusive and executed that plan well,” she said. “I think they’ve made an excellent choice.”

In addition to strengthening the system with affiliates, Conroy said she aims to expand D-H’s presence in southern New Hampshire.

D-H officials have made clear they hope to expand in the more populous region in a bid to move away from a fee-for-service system to one where providers are paid a set amount for each patient in their system.

In addition to holding a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Dartmouth, Conroy holds a medical degree from the Medical University of South Carolina. She is board certified by the American Board of Anesthesiologists and has added qualifications in pain management.

Dr. Harris Berman, dean of Tufts University School of Medicine, said he was sorry to see Conroy leave her post at the head of Lahey, a teaching hospital for Tufts. But, he said, Tufts’ loss is Dartmouth’s gain.

“She really understands the academic medical center,” Berman said. “Also, the doctors (at Lahey) really liked her. That should go (over) really well with the clinic. … It sounds like a match made in heaven.”

Dr. Darrell Kirch, who has been president and chief executive of the Association of American Medical Colleges since 2006, also said Conroy, who worked with him for six years, has the right skill set for the position at D-H.

“Dr. Conroy brings a wealth of experience, exceptional creative energy, and a deep commitment to patient-centered care to her leadership role at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health,” he said in D-H’s news release on Thursday. “She has a clear vision for how the highest quality and most complex clinical services, cutting edge research, and education of the next generation of health professionals come together in the academic health center, to create the future of health care for our nation.”

On Thursday, Upper Valley legislators greeted the news of Conroy’s selection with enthusiasm.

“I’m just optimistic and feel like everybody’s ready for things to turn up and for Dartmouth-Hitchcock to sort of come back to it’s glory,” said state Sen. Martha Hennessey, D-Hanover.

Hennessey, a member of the Dartmouth Class of 1976 who was among the first women to graduate from the college, said she didn’t remember meeting Conroy on campus.

“I’m also thrilled it’s a woman,” she said.

State Rep. Sharon Nordgren, D-Hanover, expressed relief that the hospital system’s leaders had made an appointment.

“The longer that it took the harder it was going to be to bring the place back together,” said Nordgren, a senior Democrat overseeing health care funding on the House Finance Committee and the spouse of a retired pediatric neurologist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. “Obviously, she probably knows it’s going to be important to establish relationships with the Congressional delegation and the people in Concord. I’m sure legislators would be happy to meet with her and give her our thoughts.”

According to Federal Election Commission records, Conroy in recent years has given money to hospital PACs and some progressive candidates, including $750 to U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., last year and $1,000 in 2016 to Emily’s List, which backs female Democratic candidates who support abortion rights.

But she also gave $500 in September 2014 to the campaign of Charlie Baker, a centrist Republican and former health care executive who won the Massachusetts governor’s office that fall.

Dartmouth College President Phil Hanlon, who was a classmate of Conroy’s in Dartmouth’s Class of 1977 but did not know her, said in an emailed statement Thursday that he welcomes her to the new post.

“Dr. Joanne Conroy is an excellent choice to lead the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health system,” he wrote. “A thriving partnership between the medical center and Dartmouth is important to our shared success. I am pleased to welcome Dr. Conroy back to the Upper Valley community and look forward to working with her.”

After Weinstein’s departure at the end of this month and before Conroy’s arrival in August, D-H’s Chief Clinical Officer Edward Merrens and Chief Administrative Officer Stephen LeBlanc will serve as co-interim CEO and president.

Staff Writer Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.

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