It was a little more than five years ago when then-troubled welcomed a new president and CEO, Robert Chaloner, a long-time hospital administrator experienced in steering medical facilities through choppy waters.
Southampton Hospital had some trying years, but after Chaloner joined the hospital in 2006 things began to look up. Chaloner said during an interview last week at his office that when he took the helm the staff morale was low, public perception wasn’t what it should be and the finances were in bad shape. But in 2012, Chaloner can proudly say, “The hospital is not in a crisis anymore.” If recent record-breaking donations are any indication, the South Fork's faith in its only hospital is greater than ever.
Chaloner has been in hospital administration for 30 years and his family has a history in hospitals as well. He grew up in Coxsackie on the Hudson River, where his father was a small-town doctor and chief of the medical staff at a hospital and his mother was a nurse on the board.
Chaloner said the original plan was that he would become a doctor and take over his father’s practice, but after trying medicine he found he had an interest in the administrative side of health care. “Everything goes on in the walls of a hospital,” he said, explaining why hospital administration attracted him. “It’s like a little town,” with food service, libraries, education and finance departments, etc.
He first served as a CEO for The Bon Secours and Canterbury Partnership for Care in Jersey City. He started with the three-hospital system in 1997, and in 2001 a recruiter for Cabrini Medical Center in Manhattan headhunted him.
Chaloner said that on his way to Cabrini for the job interview, a plane struck the second World Trade Center. It was the moment when it became clear to the country that the first plane strike was no accident — the country was under attack.
“I remember literally every minute of that day,” Chaloner said of Sept. 11, 2001.
He rushed back to his office, which had a view of the World Trade Center, and arrived just before the second tower fell. The hospital was flooded with so many calls, he said, that everyone got on a phone, including himself. “That was the most heartbreaking, tragic thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he said, describing the frantic phone calls he received from people trying to find their family members. “It convinced me how valuable hospitals are.”
He eventually had that interview at Cabrini, and got the job. He described it as a "labor of love," managing a struggling facility in post-9/11 Manhattan.
Cabrini was a hospital with a very strong mission, involved in causes such as battling HIV, Chaloner said, but, financially, it was a disaster. In his five years there, he got it to about break-even, he said.
But the commission's decision was not a big surprise. Cabrini was in an area saturated with hospitals. “Even the board agreed it had no reason for being,” Chaloner said. “I could look out my window and see four other hospitals.”
Before coming to Southampton for his job interview in 2006, Chaloner said, he had never been to the Hamptons except for, perhaps, a brief visit. He arrived hours early and drove around, taking a tour of Gin Lane. “I thought to myself, ‘I could do this,’” he recalled. “‘It’s pretty spectacular out here.’”
He also liked the appeal of working in a small town, he said, and he bought a house in Northwest Woods. “It’s the smallest house and the biggest mortgage I’ve ever had in my life,” he said. But, to him, it’s worth it: “Still, my jaw drops at how beautiful it is out here.”
While nowhere near what he’d seen at Cabrini, Chaloner said Southampton Hospital’s financials were in bad shape when he took the helm in 2006.
But the bigger problems he saw were low morale among the staff and bad public perception. He said he found that making fun of the hospital was cocktail party sport, and he worried that people lost their belief.
“But despite all of that, there was still a yearning to keep the place alive,” he said.
His first priority in turning the hospital around was the staff, Chaloner said, pointing out that, “It’s the people that take care of people.”
Take away everything else and a hospital is still a hospital as long as there are nurses, he said. With that in mind — and even as the hospital was operating with multimillion-dollar annual deficits — more nurses and other staff were hired. “People really were working too hard,” Chaloner said. But when the staffing level got to where it needed to be, both staff and patients became happier.
He added that he has been lucky to have Chief Nursing Officer Patricia Darcey at his side. In fact, he said he and Darcey, who has led nursing recruitment efforts, have been joined at the hip.
The hospital has also added doctors and residencies and profitable satellite offices across the South Fork.
On the public perception and community engagement front, Chaloner said he visited with every local organization to hear their concerns about the hospital when he came on board. And now the hospital just had a record-breaking year for philanthropy, taking in more than $6 million in contributions.
In getting financials on track, Chaloner said the hospital has made its biggest strides in renegotiating managed care contracts with insurance companies. He said Southampton Hospital was being underpaid for procedures and hospital stays. But after demanding higher reimbursement rates, and joining with and for better negotiating clout, Southampton no longer loses money when admitting insured patients.
The hospital has also become more aggressive in billing and collecting, he said, and in seeking grants.
Now the hospital is profitable after taking donations into account, but Chaloner’s ultimate goal is to become profitable without philanthropy pushing the books into the black.
Chaloner has overseen facilities improvements, including a remodeled emergency room. But he says the ultimate goal is to build a new hospital — possibly on the campus in Shinnecock Hills. Chaloner said it is an ideal location, between two highways for ease of access and with educational opportunities.