“King of the Cannibals” at Caritas?

Today is the last of our comments for now about Caritas Christi, but there was so much in the news about them in recent days we felt we should just highlight a few things for you.

You already know about the boring, ineffective, and very expensive Super Bowl commercials and how no one at Steward Health Care is apparently stewarding the Stewardship Agreement to maintain the Catholic identity of Caritas publicly–and in fact they are in the process of actively removing Christ from Caritas Christi’s website. In case you missed reading the two pieces in the Boston Globe in recent days,  selected details are offered today.

From the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, we learned the following:

One day several years back, de la Torre’s father, Angel came to Massachusetts for a visit…”I realized over the last couple of years that I never should have worried about you,” Angel told his son. “We could drop you into a tribe of cannibals, and you’d either get eaten within the day or you’d become king of the cannibals.” Given how sparing with praise his loving but exacting dad had always been, that comment, Ralph says, was one of the most meaningful compliments he’d ever received.

As you know, cannibals eat the flesh of other humans.  BCI does not know about how other readers feel on this topic, but if we were dropped into a tribe of cannibals, we would rather escape from the cannibals, muster help from like-minded people opposed to the practice of killing other humans and eating their flesh, and return to capture and imprison the cannibals so they cannot go out and kill other people.

If the president of Caritas sees “king of the cannibals” as a compliment, is anyone else worried about the future of what little remains of Catholic healthcare in Massachusetts?

The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine article also mentions the swank $15,000/head fundraiser that de la Torre hosted at his Newton home for President Obama in the fall, which raised $900,000.  It remains unexplained how a person who “was not politically active until recently” managed to get the President of the United States to come to his house for a fundraiser.  Also unclear to us is how one can support a candidate who is in favor of abortion, while being a self-described “social liberal” leading a hospital system whose core values oppose abortion.  Maybe BCI missed something in the article, so we will re-read it and let you know when we figure out this inherent conflict.

On Tuesday, February 8, the Globe ran another piece, Ralph de la Torre’s biggest challenges are yet to come which gives additional perspective on what lies ahead for de la Torre and the former Caritas Christi.  They largely draw from the Sunday Globe piece, but the key points are noteworthy:

Can de la Torre and the private equity firm Cerberus transform the non-profit hospitals into for-profit money makers without upsetting Massachusetts’ fragile ecosystem of community hospitals?

If de la Torre fails, health care provided at Caritas hospitals and other hospitals around the state could suffer. Worse yet, they could close altogether. If de la Torre can pull it off, however, it could mean better quality health care at a better price for Bay State residents. And if de la Torre succeeds here in Massachusetts, he would also, no doubt, be called on to replicate his success in other states or at the national level.

According to a new profile by Neil Swidey, though, despite his obvious passion for the job, execution may not be de la Torre’s strong point. Swidey relates a story from earlier in de la Torre’s career to make this point. When de la Torre was chief of cardiac surgery at Beth Israel in 2004, he hatched a plan to revolutionize cardiac care at the hospital by creating a centralized CardioVascular Institute (CVI) there. Things started off well, both for the hospital and de la Torre:

de la Torre identified all his opponents and worked methodically to persuade them they would win under his plan. He promised patients improved care, doctors a piece of the enhanced revenues that would spring from reducing system waste, and the hospital a success story to distinguish itself in the hypercompetitive Boston market. The CVI officially opened in 2007, with de la Torre as president and CEO. He continued his work as a surgeon, maintaining the salary of more than $1.3 million that he had earned the previous year.[Dr. Frank Pomposelli, a veteran vascular surgeon at Beth Israel] says de la Torre’s enormous talent, intellect, and drive helped the CVI succeed in many ways, notably in removing waste from hospital operations and in building strong networks of affiliated physicians. De la Torre wined and dined community cardiologists around the region, persuading them to become affiliates and refer patients to Beth Israel for care.

But then reality set in, and de la Torre’s plans for the CVI fell short:

The silos were harder to break down than they thought, especially since “we didn’t pay enough attention to academics and research.” Also the “enhanced revenues” to physicians turned out to be far less than promised, leading to resentment. Pomposelli, who remains the chief of vascular surgery at Beth Israel, stresses that the CVI still exists, but in a much less ambitious form.

Pomposelli, a close friend of de la Torre, added this assessment of his friend: “Ralph’s a builder. He loves the deal, loves creating new things. … I don’t think he loves managing things as much. Running the CVI turned out to be tedious and difficult.”

This matters because there is a real risk of failure for Caritas — which de la Torre, despite his cheerleading for the Cerberus deal, is well aware of. In fact, the person who has best explained the risk is de la Torre himself, when he testified before the Public Health Council as a part the deal’s approval process. “What is the risk?” de la Torre repeated when asked to explain how he plans on turning his non-profit hospitals into money makers:

The risk is that we are wrong. The risk is that the people in Massachusetts fundamentally don’t care about the cost of health care or staying in their communities, and that they really just want to come to Boston. That is the risk. That is what we are gambling isn’t the case.

de la Torre added that, “from the start,” he has “been very clear with Cerberus” about these risks. In selling his vision to the people of Massachusetts, though, de la Torre hasn’t always been as clear. To be sure, de la Torre has shown plenty of political acumen, getting unions, Church officials, community activists, and investors all on the same page. But creating long-lasting success at Caritas will be “tedious and difficult” — something de la Torre didn’t show much patience for at Beth Israel.

Can the man who sees “becoming king of the cannibals” as a compliment pull off the challenge?  And will the self-described “social liberal” also steward the Stewardship agreement that calls for maintaining Catholic identity and Catholic ethical and moral directives all at the same time?

Based on what we have seen so far, we are not very hopeful.

5 Responses to “King of the Cannibals” at Caritas?

  1. anna says:

    It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to know that doctors in the suburbs do not keep up with technology anywhere near what the doctors in Boston do. They are doctors who are happy making a half million to spend more time on their boats or the golf course, rather than keeping up with the best ways to treat their patients. They are good for minor boo-boos but smart folks head to Boston when something is really wrong.

    Proud to be king of the cannibals? That certainly explains his success at 66 brooks drive doesn’t it?

  2. Chris says:

    I hope all this information is being packaged and sent along to the Vatican and to Catholic media sources.

  3. Inquiring Minds says:

    The enormous animal in the center of the room is this:

    Why would a surgeon who, as a relatively young man in 2007 had a thriving practice going at one of the most well-funded and best known hospitals in Boston, suddenly become the director of a chain of fiscally failing third-rate hospitals? What is the mechanism that allowed for someone of Dr. de la Torre’s talent and promise to fall so far and so fast?

    Inquiring minds want to know…

  4. Pat in MA says:

    Too bad the Attorney General did not stand up for the citizens of MA when all this was brought to light long before Wall Street took over health care in our state (and the Attorney General was all in favor.) Oh yeah, did she also benefit from the fundraiser del a Torre’s home? Hmmm.

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