MSHA President and CEO Dennis Vonderfecht to retire

2/27/2013


JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. – Following 23 years of visionary leadership in the region’s health care industry, Dennis Vonderfecht, president and CEO of Mountain States Health Alliance, announced this week that he plans to retire at the end of 2013.

“It has been an honor and a great pleasure to serve as president and CEO of MSHA for the past 23 years,” Vonderfecht said in a letter sent to MSHA team members on Wednesday. “We’ve celebrated many milestones along the way, and I’m immensely proud of what this organization has become. I have every expectation that the next chapter in MSHA’s story will be equally as bright as the chapters you and I have written together.”

Vonderfecht came to Northeast Tennessee in 1990 as CEO of Johnson City Medical Center (JCMC). He had previously served as regional vice president of Research Health Services System in Kansas City, Mo. In 1990, JCMC was an independent community hospital, but even in those early days, Vonderfecht had a vision for a much broader future.

“There were two main opportunities that I saw when I came here,” he said. “The first was the fact that a strategic plan had never been done for Johnson City Medical Center. The board had a desire to expand the hospital from a physical standpoint, but before we could do that, we needed to create a strategic plan to identify where the service line growth opportunities were, and that would define the physical expansion plan.

“The other opportunity I saw was the potential for a fully integrated health care system. The system I came from functioned that way, but when I came here, I saw a lot of independent hospitals that weren’t working together as a whole. So one of the first things I began to do was to develop the relationships that could create the foundation for a health system.”

In 1991, Vonderfecht created the Mountain States Health Care Network, an affiliation of hospitals throughout the region that helped each other by sharing resources for training, recruitment and referrals, and lowered costs by using group purchasing power for supplies.

“As those rural hospitals identified the need to have a formalized relationship with a stronger partner, we would be the logical choice,” Vonderfecht said. “To a large degree, we created Mountain States Health Alliance out of those relationships that we cultivated through the Mountain States Health Care Network.”

In 1998, the vision of an integrated health care system began to take shape, and its first step was a giant one. Johnson City Medical Center purchased six hospitals in the region from the national system, Columbia HCA, forming the health care organization known today as Mountain States Health Alliance.

“We doubled in size overnight, and became a truly regional health care system with a service area that extended on up into Virginia with the inclusion of Indian Path Medical Center,” Vonderfecht said.

Today, MSHA’s service area includes 29 counties in Northeast Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, Northwest North Carolina and Southeast Kentucky. The health system comprises 13 hospitals, with a 14th expected to come on board this year. The hospitals range in size from two-bed Johnson County Community Hospital to 445-bed JCMC, which is a major tertiary referral center, a level 1 trauma center, and the region’s only state-designated perinatal center. Among the system’s other facilities are a psychiatric hospital, a rehabilitation hospital, and the region’s only children’s hospital. MSHA also operates a 250-member physician group, a retail pharmacy chain, a home health agency, and a health insurance company.

According to the American College of Healthcare Executives, the average length of tenure for a hospital CEO is 5.5 years. Fewer than 4 percent stay in one place more than 20 years. By the time he retires in December 2013, Vonderfecht will have been at the helm of MSHA for 24 years. 

What’s made him want to stay so long? “I guess I always saw that there was opportunity to continue to grow and develop and make the organization better,” he said. “I’ve always been challenged and never bored.”

When asked whether he has a favorite accomplishment, Vonderfecht said there are actually two.

“I’ve thought a lot about that over the past several years. There are two that really stand out,” he said. “One is Wings Air Rescue. When we started that air ambulance service in 1995, there was nothing else like it in the region. We’ve saved countless lives by providing air transport that has helped people to reach critical services quickly. There’s no telling how many more lives might have been saved if we’d had that service even sooner.

“The other is Niswonger Children’s Hospital. Through that hospital and our relationships with East Tennessee State University, we’ve been able to bring a much higher level of care to the region for our children. Families are now able to stay close to home and receive care in an environment that has all the protocol of national experts like St. Jude or Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.”

An executive search firm has been engaged to guide the interview and selection process for MSHA’s next CEO. The firm, along with a search committee from the MSHA Board of Directors, is identifying candidates for consideration, with a final selection expected by July. The new CEO is expected to be in place by October 1, and Vonderfecht will officially retire on December 31.

“With the help of the search firm, we are looking at both internal and external candidates,” said Clem Wilkes, chairman of the MSHA Board of Directors. “The selection of the next leader is a critical decision that will strongly impact the future of health care in our region, so we feel it’s important to explore all available options.

“Dennis will be greatly missed by the MSHA system, the board of directors, and the region at large,” Wilkes continued. “His strategic insight has been a driving force in the development of our entire health care industry, and his personal character has helped MSHA develop and maintain the culture of patient-centered care that we all value so highly.”

Vonderfecht said he is confident that MSHA’s future is secure.

“No one is irreplaceable. I’ve always had that philosophy, and that includes the CEO,” he said. “We’ve got a very strong board just as we’ve always had, and they have been with us throughout this journey. They are very committed to the culture of the organization, and I do believe that whoever is selected as the next CEO is going to be a person who will carry that culture forward into the future.”

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