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Jason Barker took over as president and CEO of St. Vincent Healthcare in January 2011 and wasted no time improving health care in the region.

In August, the hospital announced creation of the $1 million Fortin Regional Pediatric Specialty Clinic. As many as 28 board-certified pediatric specialists will ultimately practice in the building, representing 15 pediatric specialties.

In September, the 46-year-old Barker was tapped to chair the annual Go Red for Women Luncheon in Billings with organizers calling it a "coup." The event is the American Heart Association's effort to save women's lives.

In October, Barker announced construction of a new $8.2 million St. Vincent Healthcare Orthopedic Center of Excellence, designed to meet the growing demand for specialized orthopedic and spine care needs.

Barker recently sat down with The Billings Gazette for a rapid fire question-and-answer session.

 What is the highlight of the year?

I have to pick just one (laughing)? It would be the substantially increased physician recruitment. We've really taken that on and I think we've done a real great job with that.

Can you quantify that?

With the folks we added in 2011 and those scheduled to come in 2012, we have 30 new physicians coming to Billings to the St. Vincent Physician Network.

Are you done recruiting?

We are never done recruiting. Will it be as aggressive as it has been in the last year? Probably not.

What do you consider your biggest accomplishment?

Re-energizing our physician and caregiver community, particularly our physician community, helping them understand that I'm every bit as committed to their success as I am committed to the success of St. Vincent.

Biggest disappointment?

That we haven't made the same progress for our frontline staff, meaning just general improvements and a big improvement in morale. We did an employee satisfaction survey this year. We hadn't done one in a number of years. One of the most important things for me is to have caregivers here who feel they are answering life's calling, are fully engaged and enthusiastic about being here. I'm not suggesting that they aren't, but I have relatively high standards. If you were to compare us to nationwide averages, I'd want to see us in the top quartile of employee satisfaction and employee engagement. And we're not there.

Can you quantify the employee satisfaction?

It's a five-point scale and it's like a 3.5 or 3.6. I don't know what that means in terms of a percentile ranking but my guess is that's probably pretty average. I don't like being average. I don't want our staff to feel that this is a place that's just an average place to work. I'd like to see it about a 4.2. That's what I'm used to seeing.

Biggest surprise?

I've worked in about six different hospitals in my career and the medical staff here is the best medical staff I've ever worked with. They have really high standards. They hold each other accountable to really high standards. I can't tell you how great that is to be the CEO of an organization where the physicians are so committed to quality care.

Biggest professional challenge?

How to make sure that we're prepared for the future. Are we doing everything that we need to be doing to prepare for everything that's going to be thrown at us with health reform, with a balanced budget? How do we move this organization into the future positively, optimistically and with hope knowing there will be huge challenges for us? How do we keep everybody engaged and excited about what we do when it seems like we have a target painted on our backs with some of this stuff coming out of Washington, D.C.

Biggest challenge facing health care in Billings and Yellowstone County?

There are a number of things in health reform that will create some challenges for us. We're seeing some of the decisions being made in D.C. around what you sometimes hear as the "doc fix," that effectively says the amount of money that Medicare pays to physicians has to grow at a sustainable rate. ... If they were to actually implement that, it would be a 27 percent cut to physicians and that would be very, very hard for Billings.

The other issue is the pressure that's being put on critical access hospitals. The question is whether critical access hospitals are going to be able to continue to be funded in the way they have been in the past and whether they are going to reduce that. Are they going to potentially reduce the benefit of the provider tax that hospitals voluntarily tax themselves to increase Medicaid reimbursement? If those things start going away then it's going to become a very huge challenge for health care in Billings.

Biggest misconception about healthcare reform?

That it's going to be a panacea. The reality of the situation with health reform is that we're going to try to cover more individuals with some form of health coverage but there will not be a single penny coming into the system to do that. It will be redistribution. That's going to challenge everybody. It will put the "R-word" on the table -- rationing. For countries that have a health care system in place that cover a large percentage of the population, they have rationing mechanisms. That's very, very hard for us Americans, rugged individualists, to surrender our health and our bodies over to somebody that says you make the decision about what is covered and what is not.

To be fair, we ration care today but it is rationed based on your ability to pay. Do you have the ability to buy insurance? Do you work for an employer who buys insurance for you? Or are you of the age where you're covered by Medicare?

What letter grade would you give your performance?

I'd give myself a "B." I think we've made great progress in some areas but not in others. We've continued good progress in improving patient satisfaction, our financial picture is better and our quality has continued to improve. We've made some really great strides but for me to be able to say I deserve an "A" I would need to be in a better position in terms of how our staff feels about the organization right now.

What is your motto?

I really don't have a motto. Am I supposed to have a motto (laughing)? Let me put it to you this way, if you were to look on my Facebook page, it's completely boring, but it you look on my Facebook page you would see a quote, "An eye for an eye and the whole world goes blind." So, if there is a motto, it's really how do we collaborate and work together to make the world a better place.

Do you Tweet?

No, I don't Tweet. Twitter is for people who are too ADD to use Facebook. So, Twitter is not my thing. I did Facebook. That's enough, right? (laughing)

Who are your heroes?

I've never been much into heroes. There are people in the world that I admire, people who you wouldn't know. The very first CEO that I worked for in health care, Dave Bjornson, is somebody that I've admired a lot. He was one of the folks who really ingrained in me the sense that you improve things in the world through collaboration, particularly in health care, and be a positive source of change and improvement.

There's another person I admire a lot, Erie Chapman. He started an interesting movement in health care, the idea of creating a healing hospital by radically changing the way we deliver care, to move it from a less mechanized approach to a more love-based approach.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?

Ego and hubris, people who are all about themselves.

What do you value most in your friends?

Companionship and camaraderie. In my role it's hard to sometimes have friends because people don't really want to be your friend. They want something from you. So, I value having friends with whom I can just have companionship, share a glass of wine, talk about your family, your hopes and aspirations and neither of us want anything from the other person other than just companionship.

What are you currently reading?

I think it's called "Reframing Organizations." I tend to read books about health care and what I do. A lot of what I've been reading lately is what makes organizations work and how do you lead through change and, in particular, how do you lead through adaptive change. This idea of reframing organizations is what's on my nightstand right now other than my magazine.

What magazine? "

Guitar Techniques."

Do you play guitar?

(Laughing) I'm a very poor and frustrated guitar player. One of these days I'll actually be able to play a song. I'm aspirational.

Most treasured possession?

(Long pause) "The only thing I can think of is my watch, a 20th anniversary gift from my wife. It's interesting. I have a hard time thinking of possessions as treasures.

What did The Gazette miss about your first year as CEO?

What we've done this past year is set the foundation. If you don't have a good foundation for how you're going to improve, how you're going to grow, how you're going to meet the needs of the community, then you're not going to be successful. 

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Contact Cindy Uken at cuken@billingsgazette.com or 657-1287.

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