Meet the new boss 

St. Patrick's Steve Witz gets settled in

Steve Witz wears the uniform of the typical administrator as he strolls the halls of St. Patrick Hospital: white Oxford, conservative tie and small, laminated ID badge. Without careful scrutiny, Witz could be mistaken for a hospital accountant or a clerk in the human resources department, but his ID gives him away. Under his photo and name are tiny, black letters spelling out the title “President.”

If Witz doesn’t have the air of a hospital president, perhaps it’s because he hasn’t been one long.

Two months ago, Witz took the helm of St. Pat’s, his first chance to run the show. But closing in on his second decade of administrative work in the health care industry, Witz isn’t overly concerned about stepping into predecessor Larry White’s long shadow.

“I like what I do and the long hours have never been a problem,” says Witz. “I’m not worried about it.”

Witz grew up in Minnesota and since beginning his career he’s skirted the line between Westerner and Midwesterner: college and graduate school in Minneapolis, out to Salt Lake City for his first job, then back to the Midwest to work in Madison, Wis. In his travels he’s picked up a few recreational hobbies that will help him fit in as a Montanan. He, his wife and two children all ski, and while acting as chief operating officer of the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics he endeavored to fly fish.

“Wisconsin has some surprisingly good fly fishing,” he says. “But it’s nothing like the bigger waters you have out here.”

Since his February arrival, Witz hasn’t had a chance to go skiing and admits that his “waders and rods are still packed in the car.” But he understands that the first few months are going to be busy and that it may take awhile until that first long weekend rolls around.

“It’s a beautiful state and a great area to live,” he says. “But to be honest, I was really attracted by the job.”

Witz knows he’s not stepping into a role where he can run on autopilot. Former president White accomplished a lot in his 23 years at St. Pat’s, but that doesn’t mean that he didn’t leave a pile of urgent and unfinished business at the doorstep to his office. In an exit interview with the Missoulian, White likened American hospitals to homes infested with termites, saying that the infrastructure is being silently devoured while the homes’ owners unknowingly go about their routine. He added that the federal government is nearly oblivious to the problem and will likely take notice only after the U.S. health care crisis has grown to an almost irreversible disaster.

“I certainly think that the infrastructure of health care in the United States is undergoing a really significant change,” says Witz in response. “And I’m assuming that what Larry was particularly referring to was the level of financial support for funding health care. I certainly would share his opinion that there are some really serious challenges to how we move forward.”

Maybe the greatest challenge facing Witz and his peers around the nation is the stagnant funding of government programs like Medicare and Medicaid. Current projections estimate that Medicare could go bust as aging baby boomers flood the burdened system in the next few decades.

“Under the weight of increasing enrollment and other competing needs for tax dollars, the federal and state programs are funding health care at a rate under that of inflation,” says Witz.

This means that as millions more Americans enroll in Medicare each year, the program’s funding is effectively declining, leading to less coverage for each enrollee. Over 40 million Americans depend on Medicare, and as that number grows, so too does the number of Americans without any health coverage at all. But for the most part these are problems Witz can’t fix. He can only hold on and hope that the federal government finds solutions.

Witz recalls President Clinton’s early ’90s promise of a universal health care plan. In the end, Witz says, the Clinton administration was just overwhelmed at the complicated nature of revamping the system. And while Bush also came into office touting health care as a priority, issues of war and terrorism have monopolized his administration’s attentions.

“It’s definitely going to take more time to find a solution,” says Witz. “But whether or not the president should take more time is not really my call.”

Witz’ responsibility is navigating St. Pat’s through the hospital’s ambitious growth plans. The hospital is Montana’s third largest, and Missoula County’s third-largest employer. St. Pat’s physical growth plan—bumping Safeway down the block and expanding its campus—has been heavily covered in the media. Hospital plans to expand services haven’t gotten as much ink.

“St. Patrick has a fairly broad scope of services and many of these require a critical mass of patients in order to be viable into the future,” says Witz. “What we’ll need to do is try to determine what we can do to obtain that critical mass. There are other providers, other hospitals who would like to treat those patients, so there is going to be some level of competition. We’ll need to sort though how we can stay competitive and how we can do so in a responsible manner.”

When asked if this growth will create conflicts with competitors like Community Hospital, Witz is to the point: “Yes it will.”

During the past year St. Pat’s board of directors has aggressively explored the issue of adding maternity care to its quiver—St. Pat’s got out of the business in 1975, and the field has been dominated by Community Hospital since then. St. Patrick’s board eventually came to the conclusion that offering maternity care is a good idea, and Witz expects the program to be implemented by this fall. Back in 2001, Community made the decision to initiate cardiac care—St. Pat’s marquee service. Witz says that St. Pat’s decision isn’t retribution for Community’s expansion, but reflects a line of thinking that says if you’re not growing, you’re dying—an ethos germane to Witz’ business.

But Witz says that as Missoula grows, there should be room for multiple health care providers to thrive—even against the tide of local and national health care problems.

“I hope that organizations like St. Pat’s will be strong enough not to crumble,” he says. “But we have to continue to evolve with ever-changing ways to deliver care.”

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