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For Former Corporate Chief, County Health Job Is Eye-Opener

Monday, November 09, 2009
The Chicago Current
by Alex Parker

When Warren Batts, a retired executive with companies ranging from Tupperware to Premark International, was nominated last year to lead the newly formed Cook County Health and Hospitals System board of directors, he wasnít sure it would be a good fit.

But since becoming chairman, he has moved to cut patronage, pushed for greater efficiency and embarked on an aggressive search for new revenue. He spoke to the Current about what lies ahead for the hospital system.

Q: You spent your entire career in the private sector. How does government work differ?


This is my first up close and personal dealing with a political body. Itís a different world. 

Itís harder to get things done, and you have a county president and 17 commissioners, and each one has a very strong opinion on any subject we deal with. 

Overall, up to this point, in spite of criticism from different directions, the county commissioners have been supportive of what we try to get done.

Commissioner (Jerry) Butler is my adviser and counselor on how not to screw up too badly. Only once I didnít follow (his advice), and it turned out he was right. 

When you know you donít know, itís best to find somebody you know and trust to guide you. And thatís what Iíve done.

The board consists of a lot of people who really know health care in Illinois, and theyíve been giving me good advice as I go along.

PR-wise, Iíve been a disaster because Iíve literally learned legally what I can say, should say and should not say. Iím having to learn a whole new game as to what you can say when, so Iíve become a little more subdued in the meetings, and less of a loose cannon, and hopefully constructive.

Itís just a learning process for me, but by the time (the boardís three-year tenure) is over, I might be pretty good at it.

Q: What have been the independent health boardís biggest accomplishments in the last year and a half?

I think itís more getting headed in the right direction in a relatively short time. 

After all, this board, except for me, all have regular jobs, and theyíve given a huge amount of their time to make this thing happen.

Weíve got a first-class management team in place. 

We will have our own general ledger online which will greatly improve our financial reporting system. ÖWeíll get better information, so we can actually hold people accountable for what theyíve been doing. Weíve joined the group purchasing organization, which, when we get it in full swing, will save us about $20 million a year. 

Weíre continually looking for ways to operate efficiently. The more efficiently we operate, the more services we can provide.

Q: The health board held a series of town hall meetings in the summer, and again last month to discuss changes to the health system. There were some pretty heated reactions. Did the public reaction to some ideas, such as ending in-patient services at Provident and Oak Forest hospitals, surprise you?

The same people who show up at these meetings tend to be pretty consistent.

You have the unions representing the workers, you have a few patients with individual situations, you have some community people, and that pattern doesnít change in the meetings. 

And I think people are going to be surprised that we do listen to what theyíre saying. We do have consultants, but consultants are consultants.

We have to make the decisions.

There isnít more and more to spend, and that part hasnít been absorbed (by the public) yet, and I donít think it will be. 

I hope they appreciate when we get through this that we are listening and adjusting accordingly Öto make sure we donít abandon any group of people that needs our help. We are the safety net, and we canít let that safety net disappear or weaken.

Q: What do you see as the health systemís biggest challenges?

Short term, we have to get our 2010 budget approved. Thatís under way. 

The second thing is weíve got to pin down our strategy and our three-year financial plan, and we plan to have a five-year plan. Ö Any major change is going to take three years, at least.

The great unknown we face is what will be the affect of the health care bill coming out of Congress. As Warren Buffett says, this is not health care reform, this is adding more people to the Medicare rolls and figuring out how to pay for it.

If theyíre all signed up on Medicaid tomorrow, will they keep coming to (Stroger Hospital)? And my sense is if theyíre going to have to stand in line all day versus going to a local hospital and waiting for an hour, theyíre going to vote with their feet. So we have to increase our patient orientation immediately to be attractive to people who have Medicare, Medicaid and public insurance, et cetera.

Q: What will success ultimately look like for the independent board?

If we can accomplish the operating goals, if the board can be at least extended, hopefully made permanent, so itís not a game of letís wait the board out and resist what management is trying to accomplish, that would be ideal.

We have a strategy, and our financial plan has been approved by the commissioners, and we have a first-class management team in place. 

We have information systems that actually have accurate information.

If we can get a supply chain system working, where weíre getting (supplies) at competitive prices on a regular basis and still meet the (minority- and women-owned business) goal the best we can, and we continue to educate and hold responsible the management of the organization.

That will not be all done at the end of our time (in 2011), but it will be under way.


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