Nearly 10 months after receiving a vote of no-confidence from the medical staff, St. Peter’s Hospital President and CEO John Solheim resigned Thursday, effective April 30.
Tom Gregg, vice president for human resources and physician services at St. Peter’s, will serve as interim leader of the hospital while it undertakes a national search for a replacement, officials said.
A hospital statement credited Solheim with playing a leading role in many positive changes at the hospital and health care in Helena during his 11-year tenure. Others contacted Thursday said the executive’s departure is a positive development.
“This is wonderful news,” said Bob Errichello of Townsend, a critic of Solheim and leader of a group, PatientsVoice, which formed to examine issues with the hospital.
“I only think it’s going to get better,” said Dr. Tom Weiner, a member of the board and chief of the medical staff, who has previously been critical of the board’s lack of swift response to doctors’ concerns. “I think the medical staff has a lot of trust in Tom Gregg and we think that we can work with him, and we’re hoping to continue to improve patient care.”
Rick Hays, chairman of the hospital board, would not discuss whether Solheim will receive a severance package from the hospital, saying it was a confidential personnel issue. Asked if the hospital board initiated the CEO’s departure, Hays said only that Solheim resigned Thursday morning and that the board was continuing to implement its action plan, developed last summer in the wake of doctor complaints, to work with the administration and medical staff to improve medical care.
For years, some doctors had complained of problems with Solheim. In 2008, more than half of the medical staff wrote to the hospital board of directors that “the bullying and antagonistic attitude of the administration is significantly to blame” for what they perceived as a high rate of doctor turnover.
In December 2010, doctors at Helena Physicians Clinic gave up medical admitting rights at St. Peter’s in a dispute over the hospital’s demand for payments for hospitalists, or doctors who take care of patients in the hospital. The clinic’s owner, the Great Falls Clinic, later sold the building to St. Peter’s, which established a clinic there with some of the same doctors. But the incident had some patients and doctors charging that St. Peter’s sought control of all medical doctors in the area (with the exception of those at the Montana VA Medical Center at Fort Harrison.)
An Independent Record story in April 2011 highlighted additional doctor complaints and concern over doctor departures. Last May, about 75 percent of the approximately 100 doctors on the medical staff voted against Solheim in a no-confidence test. Almost as many voted as having a similar lack of confidence in the board.
The board responded by establishing a subcommittee, chaired by Hays, to examine physician complaints. After interviewing about 20 doctors, the board announced an action plan for making improvements as well as its support for Solheim.
The hospital arranged public “patient forums” to discuss concerns on various topics. At a forum in November, Weiner said most of the doctors agreed there had been improvements in the previous six months.
“But I would also say the vast majority are, ‘Wait and see whether it stays,’” he said at the time. “They’re somewhat skeptical and they’re hoping that it continues to improve.”
Late last year, the hospital received new radiological equipment and some critics acknowledged that the key department had undergone a major positive turnaround with appropriate personnel and equipment in place after a few years of inconsistent performance.
Hays said in a Thursday statement that in Solheim’s 11 years at St. Peter’s, he was instrumental in bringing new health services and technology to the community. Solheim oversaw a five-year expansion project, the development of St. Peter’s Medical Group, the establishment of clinics in the north Helena Valley, and the opening of Capital City Health Club last year, among other efforts.
“These are challenging and rapidly changing times in health care,” Hays said in the statement. “Today, our facility provides high-quality patient care, is strong financially and has a plan for navigating the road ahead. We appreciate the leadership John has brought to St. Peter’s.”
“Although the medical staff has not always seen eye to eye with Mr. Solheim, we recognize important contributions he has made to the hospital and community,” chief-of-staff-elect Dr. Tom Strizich, a pediatrician, said in the statement.
Dr. Jay Larson, a longtime internist who is not employed by the hospital but is on the medical staff, held his own community forum on patient care and has spoken out against some of St. Peter’s operations.
“After almost a year of controversy, the board has finally come to the realization that St. Peter’s Hospital needed a new administrator,” he said in an email Thursday afternoon.
He said a large severance package or “golden parachute” for Solheim would be “unfortunate” and ultimately come out of the pockets of patients.
Solheim did not respond to messages left at his home telephone Thursday and with hospital spokeswoman Peggy Stebbins seeking comment.
“I have enjoyed my tenure here and am proud of what we have accomplished for the community of Helena,” he wrote in his resignation letter to the board. “I am appreciative of the employees, staff, doctors, and leadership team for their commitment to the high quality of care delivered at St. Peter’s.”