After a health care career that spanned more than 35 years, Mountain States Health Alliance President and CEO Dennis Vonderfecht announced Wednesday that he would retire at the end of 2013.
“At the time I retire, I’ll be 63 and really want to spend time with my family and I’ve got two grandchildren now to spend time with and hobbies I haven’t had a whole lot of time to spend time on and travel with my wife and do all those types of things,” he said of his decision to retire after 23 years with the system.
Vonderfecht’s career in Johnson City started in 1990 when he joined Johnson City Medical Center as CEO, following his time as regional vice president of Research Health Services Systems in Kansas City, Mo.
At that time, Mountain States didn’t exist. The area only had a number of independent hospitals, and Vonderfecht said he saw room for growth beyond just Johnson City Medical Center.
“My goal when I came in was to make it really a tertiary referral hospital and part of a larger organization and we’ve certainly been able to accomplish both of those things over the years,” he said.
A year after joining the hospital, Vonderfecht created Mountain States Health Care Network, an affiliate network of regional hospitals that shared resources.
Mountain States Health Alliance formed in 1998 after JCMC purchased six hospitals from Columbia HCA.
That formation allowed the health care provider to keep a number of services in the region while allowing Mountain States to grow into what it has become today.
“A good example of that is a lot of our children’s hospital services. In 1990, there was no children’s hospital and very few pediatric specialists here. ... With the development of the children’s hospital in 1992 and the recruitment of a whole bunch of pediatric subspecialists in here ... that’s allowed a lot of parents and kids to stay here in the region as opposed to traveling long distances,” he said.
Vonderfecht said the system’s strong focus on providing quality, patient-centered care is another thing that has helped Mountain States grow under his tenure.
Dr. Paul Stanton Jr., former president of East Tennessee State University, met Vonderfecht on his first day as CEO of Johnson City Medical Center.
“We worked together ever since,” Stanton said. “We would not be anywhere close to where we are now without Dennis Vonderfecht.”
At the time Vonderfecht came to JCMC, Stanton was dean of the ETSU medical school and vice president of health affairs. Stanton said he had been asked by the accrediting body for medical schools, the Liaison Committee on Medical Education, to begin residency programs in OB/GYN and pediatrics.
This was in 1990, just before Vonderfecht took over at JCMC. Prior to his arrival, Stanton said all local hospitals had rejected the idea of these new residencies.
“Long story short, he and the JCMC board agreed to support both programs fully,” Stanton said.
Those residencies are still successful today. The pediatrics residency program was instrumental in establishing the Niswonger Children’s Hospital, Stanton said.
Besides the residencies, Stanton said MSHA under Vonderfecht’s leadership has been a major source of scholarships for the College of Nursing and a strong supporter of the physical therapy program and the College of Pharmacy.
“I can’t imagine what it would have been like without Dennis,” Stanton said.
By the time Vonderfecht retires, he will have been with the system for 24 years. Less than 4 percent of hospital CEOs stay in one place for more than 20 years.
Vonderfecht said the opportunity for continued growth has kept him busy during his time with Mountain States.
“I saw a lot of opportunity and because of that opportunity it’s one of those situations where you don’t get bored because there’s always lots that can challenge your mind that you want to do,” he said.
As the system continues to grow and react to the ever-changing world of health care, Vonderfecht said he believes Mountain States is in a good position to weather the changes that are coming through health care reform.
“It’s going to be challenging for any health care system and no matter how well prepared we are right now, there’s still a lot of work that’s going to have to be done, because we’re looking at substantial reductions in reimbursements from the federal government for probably all payers over the next number of years,” he said.
The search for Vonderfecht’s replacement has already begun.
The MSHA board of directors have formed a search committee that is working with an outside company to identify some internal candidates.
“Obviously, it’s going to be a new era since Dennis has been here for 23-plus years. He is Mountain States and really and truly he is the one that has led us through the acquisition of the various hospitals in creating the system as we know it today, so he will be sorely missed,” said board Chairman Clem Wilkes.
Wilkes said the search committee will work over the next several weeks to identify other candidates so the board can begin paring the list down.
“By May, we should have the candidate evaluations and we’ll be able to look at those and do the candidate reviews, then we’ll have interviews with the semifinalists,” he said.
The new CEO is expected to be brought on board by Oct. 1 and will work alongside Vonderfecht until he retires Dec. 31.