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No Orientation Needed for Mercy Health CEO

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Donald Kline’s commute from suburban Pittsburgh to Youngstown is, in his words, “some of the more productive 55 minutes I have every morning.”

It’s during this time when Kline, president and CEO of Mercy Health-Youngstown, mentally maps out his day and braces for the tasks ahead. “Usually no one is texting me at 6 o’clock in the morning,” he says with a laugh. “It really helps me prepare.”

Now, five months into his new job, Kline says he feels perfectly suited and comfortable in the position – helped by having served nine years with Mercy, first as divisional chief financial officer for its northern markets and most recently, all seven of Cincinnati-based Mercy Health’s markets in Ohio and Kentucky.

Experience and familiarity with local leadership, physicians and staff, he says, made the transition easier since he succeeded Robert Shroder, who retired in February after serving 13 years as Mercy Health-Youngstown president and CEO, he says.

“The vision is to continue the journey that Bob Shroder had started in terms of clinical excellence and quality,” Kline says. “My challenge is to continue that great tradition.”

Shelly Taylor Odille, president of Paige & Byrnes Insurance, Warren, and who sits on Mercy Health-Youngstown’s board of directors, says she’s very pleased with Kline’s interaction with the board and his willingness to include them and entertain their ideas.

Taylor Odille says she’s impressed by how smoothly Kline has handled the transition to CEO and his commitment to being a visible and committed part of the community. “Hospital systems have a huge impact on the community and they touch everyone’s lives,” she says. “From everything I see, I’m very confident and impressed. We’re very fortunate to have him.”

Kline says his job is largely twofold. The first is improving access to care and quality at Mercy’s three area hospitals – Mercy Health-St. Elizabeth Youngstown Hospital, Mercy Health-St. Elizabeth Boardman Hospital, and Mercy Health-St. Joseph Warren Hospital – and its outpatient and auxiliary operations.

“I’m constantly asking, ‘If we’re in the top 10% in certain metrics nationally, how do we get to the top 5% and continue to drive that quality forward?” he says.

Second, he emphasizes the importance of becoming fully engaged in the community. “I’ve spent the better part of the last five months meeting with community and physician leaders and getting their pulse on what we’re doing well and not doing well,” he says. “Then, I’m able to bring that back to the senior team and take action.”

The core strength of Mercy Health-Youngstown has always been its commitment to clinical excellence, Kline says, and the hospital system continues to devote its reinvestment and capital dollars to improving critical services in cardiac care, oncology and other specialties.

“There are key investments on the horizon,” he reports. Next year, Mercy expects capital investments in its emergency department at St. Joseph’s along with a new hybrid operating room and second electrophysiology laboratory at St. Elizabeth-Youngstown. Moreover, the health care system will continue to upgrade and expand so it can meet community needs and market trends.

“It’s an ongoing process,” Kline says. “We look for those pockets where the community’s needs aren’t being addressed and focus our investments there. At the same time, we’re making sure we have the best equipment and make sure those strategic investments are made.”

The trend toward outpatient care and improving community access has led to new investments in ambulatory centers, evidenced most recently by Mercy’s Howland Medical Center. In May, officials broke ground on that $14.5 million complex along state Route 46 in Howland Township.

“There are more we’re contemplating that we’ll roll out in future years, more to the south and central – but there are no specific locations yet,” Kline adds. “It’s in response to demand in the market.”

The CEO says Moody’s Investment Services’ corporatewide downgrade of Mercy Health’s debt rating to A2 and A2/VMIG from A1 and A1/VMIG was expected, so little has changed with plans for reinvestment and expansions. Moody’s downgraded Mercy Health in June because of losses associated with the wind-down of HealthSpan Partners. Cleveland-based Medical Mutual of Ohio is acquiring the health insurance business.

“It’s still an A rating,” Kline says.

As the health-care system expands its footprint, the number of patients at the three hospitals continues to rise, Kline says. “The census here at St. Elizabeth’s is more than 300, at St. Joe’s it’s between 100 and 120, and there’s about 170 at Boardman,” he says. “It’s a challenge to have that much volume.”

Even more demanding on the system is the need for behavioral services in this market, Kline says. “Especially at this campus,” he says, referring to St. Elizabeth Youngstown. “We took ourselves from a 16-bed psychiatric care capacity to a 39-bed capacity.”

Still, Kline says Mercy Health-Youngstown has made great strides in patient care to limit the number of readmissions and deliver proper preventive care.

It’s the health system’s goal to focus on wellness and prevention in the community as part of its effort to reduce infections and readmissions, Kline says. “We’re ahead of the curve to the extent where we can keep people out of the hospital, and keep them in the right level of care and focus on more care being provided in the home or in their communities,” he says. “That’s really where we’re going.”

Kline was born in Pittsburgh and earned his master’s degree in business administration at the University of Pittsburgh and a baccalaureate in business administration at Duquesne University. He still lives in the northern suburbs of Pittsburgh with his wife, Kelly, and their four children.

Mercy Health-Youngstown employs more than 5,000, about 4,000 full-time. Some 1,500 are employed at St. Elizabeth Youngstown Hospital, while St. Elizabeth Boardman Hospital and St. Joseph Hospital each employ about half that number. “The rest are our physician practices and auxiliary services,” he says.

Investments in new technology and procedures have boosted the health- care system’s competitiveness in a market that has seen considerable outward migration, that is, patients who live in the Mahoning Valley but seek treatment in larger metropolitan markets such as Cleveland or Pittsburgh.

“We’ve done about 20 aortic valve replacements since March,” Kline says. “These are procedures that are only done in major markets. It’s these types of investments that bring technologies that allow our patients and families to get the care they need here instead of going out of the market.”

The strategy appears to be working, Kline says. When he joined Mercy in 2007, the health system’s market share stood somewhere in the mid-30% range. “Our last quarterly data show our market share was 48%. Some of it is movement within the market, and some of it is reduced out-migration to Cleveland or Pittsburgh,” he says.

Pictured: Don Kline became president and CEO of Mercy Health-Youngstown five months ago.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.