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One’s a strategy guy known for his directness, the other more of a people person.
Meet William L. Caron Jr. and Richard W. Petersen of MaineHealth, Maine’s largest health system and the state’s largest private employer.
Both have been with the organization for many years, and at the start of 2019 assumed new roles to lead the next chapter of MaineHealth and its largest hospital, Maine Medical Center in Portland. Caron is now CEO of MaineHealth, while Petersen wears two hats as MaineHealth president and Maine Med CEO.
“We both work hard, but you have to balance that,” Caron says in an interview at MaineHealth’s Portland headquarters on Free Street, whose bright and airy feel belies the building’s past as a Sears department store and windowless office.
Already northern New England’s largest integrated health system, MaineHealth projects revenues to go up by 20% to $3 billion in 2019. Founded in 1998, it’s also Maine’s largest private employer with a workforce of more than 19,000. MaineHealth became a single, seven-hospital nonprofit system in Maine on Jan. 1.
Momentum for further growth remains strong, with Mid Coast-Parkview Health in Brunswick considering joining the system and Maine Med’s $534 million expansion and modernization project moving ahead.
Caron, 65, and Petersen, 62, are fixtures at MaineHealth and Maine Med, with a clear appreciation for each other’s management skills and approaches. Petersen calls Caron an “incredible strategic thinker” and sees himself as strong on the operating side, while Caron admires his colleague’s interpersonal skills.
While Caron says people tell him “there’s more of an edge or aggressiveness to my management style,” he isn’t bothered by it. “I don’t ask anything of anyone I don’t do myself,” he says.
A self-confessed bean counter, Caron holds a master’s degree in accounting from Northeastern University and an undergraduate degree from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. The Dover, N.H., native got his start in consulting, heading Ernst & Young’s East region health care consulting practice in Philadelphia before joining Maine Medical Center in 1992. Six years later he joined MaineHealth, and served as president for more than 18 years before he became CEO in January.
Petersen, originally from the Binghamton area in upstate New York, earned a bachelor’s in health care administration from Ithaca College and an MBA from Canisius College in Buffalo. He joined Maine Med in 1998 and served as president and CEO for 11 years before assuming his new duties in January.
Both have a strong community presence through involvement in several organizations including United Way of Greater Portland, where Caron has spearheaded fundraising efforts and was a mentor to Liz Cotter Schlax when she first became president and CEO of the nonprofit in 2015.
“Bill not only offered assistance and support,” she says, “but also passion for United Way and harnessing the power of the community working together.” She also recalls Caron’s “spectacular” fundraising efforts in 2015 that raised 6% more than the year before and reversed a multi-year slide.
Delivering better and more affordable care statewide drove the move towards a more unified health system to ensure the better flow of resources — human and financial — between hospitals.
So that doctors in rural areas don’t feel isolated, they now have the possibility of being connected to a practice group at Maine Med with regular rotations there. That also lets them schedule procedures using expensive technology that would otherwise be outside their reach.
“It creates great community from a recruitment perspective, because they know they’re being supported clinically,” Petersen says. Another benefit for patients is that there’s now a single medical record so that if someone is transferred from an outlying facility to Maine Med, that record would be immediately available to clinicians in Portland.
“Regardless of where you are in the clinical system, you’re now part of the same medical record,” notes Petersen.
Consolidation also aims to relieve some of the financial pressure on smaller outlying hospitals so that they can focus on basic care and refer the more complex cases to larger institutions with greater technical and staffing resources — often referred to as the hub-and-spoke model.
“We have rural providers in our system, so we were beginning to see boards who had to operate within their own resources making clinical decisions that were inconsistent with the way we believe care should be provided in those communities,” says Caron. “If it’s one big pot, we look at the entire service area. That’s what unification is all about.”
He underscores that while the new setup streamlines decision-making, local boards remain in control of day-to-day operations and fundraising, and are best-placed to assess their communities’ health needs.
Though more than 60% of community hospitals in the United States belong to a system, some critics argue that mergers don’t always lead to improvements.
“While here in Maine I see some positives in the growth of hospital systems — namely that consolidation reinforces the hub-and-spoke model — the integration does nothing to help the overall cost problem in the state,” says Mitchell Stein, a Brunswick-based consultant. “It also has not done much to preserve some rural services, such as maternity, that are essential to keep our rural areas viable.”
Maine Med’s expansion, which broke ground last year, is a major reboot that will increase the number of private rooms, provide state-of-the-art procedure rooms centered on cardiovascular care, and reorient the hospital to Congress St. in Portland. The next milestone is foreseen for November, with oncology care moving into the two new East Towers.
Growing demand for outpatient care has prompted a spate of modernization projects elsewhere in system, including recent plans to invest $59 million to build a new Maine Medical Partners office building at Maine Med’s Scarborough campus.
Admitting that “we can’t say we can fix everything,” Caron points to three challenges that keep him up at night: recruiting doctors and nurses, making health care as affordable as possible for all Mainers, and fulfilling MaineHealth’s core mission of improving health.
“If we’re going to address the cost of health care,” he says, “we’re going to get there partially by getting people in Maine healthier.”