A Conversation with Al Gutierrez, SJRMC’s new CEO

For 128 years, St. Joseph Regional Medical Center has served the sick in Michiana.

Until last year, they did so in South Bend’s inner city. Then last year, the hospital relocated to a new $355 million hospital in suburban Mishawaka.

It was a move many saw as a way to avoid serving the under or uninsured.

Then last month, a new CEO was hired. NewsCenter 16’s Maureen McFadden recently sat down for a conversation with the new CEO who said, in spite of the their location, their future will very much include the city of South Bend.

Working in Faith
“A key element of how we manage our patient population is that we take care of their spiritual needs too,” says new St. Joseph Regional Medical Center CEO Al Gutierrez.

Gutierrez was born in Puerto Rico and grew up in New Jersey. That’s where he spent the last 25 years, working for a hospital system in an area very similar to Michiana.

A Roman Catholic, he says St. Joseph’s connection to a Catholic health care system is what drew him to the Midwest and he is anxious to get to work at a hospital rooted in faith.

“Absolutely, the faith-based agenda really starts to fill in some of the blanks when it comes to care. I believe that it is a strong element of healing,” he says. “Some of the things that have to do with healing are common to everyone and it does require a belief that there are things that are bigger enough than us in the universe sometimes.”

With two grown children, he says he and his wife are getting to know their way around Michiana.

“We’re trying to identify north from south, and east from west, and understanding the differences between South Bend and Mishawaka and Granger,” says Gutierrez. “It is quite an interesting, well laid-out market.”

Working in Health Care
He feels uniquely qualified as CEO because he knows how hospitals work.

“I am what is known as a cavalry officer in health care. I have had every management position that there is to have in a hospital, up to and including CEO,” he says.

And he says he knew from a young age that he wanted to be involved in the care and treatment of others, a lesson he learned from his mother.

“When we first came to the United States, my mother, who doesn’t speak English, was cleaning doctors’ offices and I would go with her as a little boy and every once in a while I would sneak a stethoscope into my ear or put on a lab jacket,” says Gutierrez.

He got a Bachelor of Science in radiologic science from Thomas Edison State College and an MBA from St. Joseph University in Philadelphia.

“I’ve been comfortable with technology throughout my career. I worked on the first CAT scanner in New York City in the 70s and have operated up to and including the state of the art MRIs that we have today,” he says.

The new leader of SJRMC is a no-nonsense kind of guy, and that’s how he plans to lead St. Joe into the future.

“I will be our organization spokesman. When you have crisis management, you’ll have access to me,” he says.

Future of Health Care Reform
While in New Jersey, Gutierrez was very close to those working on the health care reform bill. But he says the finished product is ambiguous and has the health care industry crying out for direction.

“I support health care reform in the following fashion,” he explains. “I do believe more Americans need to be insured. It’s clearly something that this health system has pushed for a long time. Number two, we do believe that there are certain elements of current reimbursement levels in Medicare that do not incent those of us in the health care industry to be as efficient as we can.”

His third problem with the current reform is the cost.

“I would tell him that we need to look at the accounting again as to how this is going to be paid for.”

He says Congress has a chance to modify the bill and test it in regions. He also supports putting more money up front providing wellness and screening.

“That is to keep people well, I would prefer that I be out of a job someday and minimize what we need in a hospital,” he says.

And while health care reform will mean more people have insurance, he says as long as Lady Liberty stands in New York Harbor we will have those who are uninsured.

“The sign doesn’t say ‘Send us your well-insured and your healthy,’ and we are learning that a lot in Jersey, so we found a way to be embracing of populations and that always became a financial challenge,” he explains. “But I do believe in terms of those we manage on a consistent basis the numbers will be less.”

He continues by saying, “The only way direction can come is from bringing together a constituency group from a region and approaching Washington, and that’s clearly my intention and I think Indiana, believe it or not, is going to fare well in health reform at the end of the day.”

In fact, he feels patients will have more power.

“They’re going to look to which hospitals they want to go for, they may be more personally financially accountable for that, but I think they are going to rate us like they rate their hotels and rate their restaurants.”

And Gutierrez says hospitals will need to be ready for that.

Treating the Underserved
And while he wasn’t in on the controversial decision to move SJRMC from South Bend to Mishawaka, he says treating the underserved has nothing to do with a hospital’s location.

We asked him if he would have made the same decision, and he replied, “Yes, I would have made the same decision. What I want the people to know is that the commitment to the underserved is something that this system has done for over 100 years and something that will continue to be with its system way into the future. The approaches on how we intend on reaching out to the underserved are brought about in many different ways.”

He continued by saying, “I’m very familiar with these tactics and especially dealing with the New York market and the urban areas where the hospital can’t be everywhere, but there are millions of people that are needed. The most cost-effective approach of managing these underserved areas is programming and has little to do with the location of the hospital.”

In fact, one of Gutierrez’s first stops as CEO was visiting a hospital-sponsored Latino health care forum in South Bend.

“The most cost-effective approach in managing these underserved areas is programming, and has little to do with the location of the hospital,” says Gutierrez. “You’re going to see us have a very strong commitment to a well-balanced region.”

Excited for the Future
This new CEO says he can’t tip his hand because he just got here, but he is excited about health care in Michiana.

“I stood in the parking lot for my second round interview, my wife and I looked up and said, ‘This is home,’ and there’s something very, very special going on here that St. Joe has not necessarily shared effectively with the surrounding community. What I see, and I would love for you to see, and you will see it in years to come,” he says.

Gutierrez also says he’s excited for the future, saying the last 15 years have brought about new technology and the breakthroughs in the future will be about medication. Hopefully, that will mean better treatments for managing heart disease and cancer.

And he says he is happy to call Michiana home.

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