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Mary Elizabeth O’Brien comes from CIGNA to start duties Jan. 5comment (0)

January 1, 2004

By Erin Webster

Baptist Health System (BHS) trustees announced Dec. 17 the decision to hire Mary Elizabeth (Beth) O’Brien as the system’s new president and chief executive officer (CEO).

O’Brien, a 30-year health care industry veteran, comes to Baptist from CIGNA HealthCare, Hartford, Conn., where she was senior vice president for both medical management and network operations.

Dr. Michael Drummond, chairman of the BHS board of trustees, said he was pleased with the board’s unanimous decision to hire O’Brien.

“Beth O’Brien has a proven track record at leading significant and successful faith-based hospital systems while having a deep abiding faith of her own,” Drummond said.

The system’s CEO post was vacated in July after trustees voted not to sell BHS to a hospital company.

Commitment to ministry

Instead, the board of trustees rededicated the system to its mission of faith-based health care and began the restructuring process.

“I am struck by the system’s commitment to ministry, its clear sense of mission and backbone of values,” O’Brien said. “To lead BHS’ rededication effort is a great honor.”

Although O’Brien is a member of the Roman Catholic Church, neither Drummond nor other BHS trustees expressed doubt in her ability to work for the Baptist system.

Drummond said BHS’ board of trustees wanted a CEO with a successful track record in faith-based health care who also had a belief in the healing ministry of Jesus.

“Yes, Beth is a Catholic, and Beth is a Christian and that’s what matters,” Drummond said.

Trustee Gary Furr, pastor of Vestavia Hills Baptist Church, served as chairman of the CEO search committee.

“Any Christian, as well as Baptist, institution takes all kids of people,” Furr said. “We are confident Beth will undergird and support [Baptist’s] mission in the community.”

Drummond added that the system’s management will maintain a decidedly Baptist voice, since ultimate oversight rests with the BHS board and its parent organization, Birmingham Baptist Association (BBA).

Both groups have been assessing governance issues and are taking steps to ensure that a majority of the BHS board of trustees, as well as the board’s chairman, are members of practicing BBA churches. These steps will be voted on in a Jan. 12 meeting of the BBA executive board.

However, the criteria for the trustees’ CEO search committee did not stipulate a Southern Baptist CEO. Furr said the committee was charged with finding a CEO who fulfilled three key criteria.

A leader who had the most experience with a multiple-hospital system.

Someone who resonated with our faith-based mission.

Someone who had a personal Christian faith that resonated with that aspect of BHS’ faith-based care.

BHS trustee and First Baptist Church, Pinson, Pastor Gary Fisher said, “It was the commitment of the board to find the best person to manage the system. There were a lot of Southern Baptist CEOs we could have chosen, yet our commitment was to the best person at this particular time for the system.”

He pointed out that BHS has partnered with St. Vincent’s Hospital several times, and “We’ve had no conflicts in policy or how the services were to be carried out. I don’t anticipate there being problems in terms of (O’Brien) working for BHS.

“In terms of personal application of Scripture, there is a wide range of difference, but those are not germaine to the health care industry,” Fisher said.

Pastor Randy Atkinson of Hillview Baptist Church, Birmingham, who also served on the CEO search committee said it was O’Brien’s faith-based experience that drew the board to her. “Her faith resonates. She will have very little challenges [as a Catholic serving BHS].”

O’Brien expressed confidence in working with the Baptist system. “I’ve worked in faith-based health care most of my career, and we hold in common real ministry and the healing ministry of Jesus Christ.”

She has also experienced life in Alabama. In the 1970s, O’Brien was an instructor at the Providence School of Nursing in Mobile.

The daughter of a nurse, O’Brien entered the health care industry as a nurse with degrees from the University of Phoenix and Phoenix College and rose to president and CEO of Catholic HealthCare West’s (CHW) 14-hospital California Division before moving to CIGNA in 2002.

A strong direction

During her tenure at CHW, the California division grew from five hospitals to 14. It also went from having a negative operating margin of $6.5 million to a positive operating income of $17.3 million.

Atkinson said the most immediate task facing O’Brien is implementing the work of the trustees’ restructuring task forces, “pulling all the pieces together.”

O’Brien said BHS’ challenges are the need to maintain its technology, hiring nurses to fill key spots in the midst of a nursing shortage and making sure BHS’ programs match the needs of the communities it serves. “The board of [trustees] was very clear about its direction and purpose,” O’Brien said.

“We will work together to formulate a strong vision and direction for the future.”

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