By TIM O'NEIL
As a teenager, John J. Finan Jr. transported patients in wheelchairs at the old Hôtel Dieu hospital, run by the Daughters of Charity in his native New Orleans. "I'd be talking with a patient and, minutes later, with a neurosurgeon," said Finan.
It was the unfiltered human connections that drew the jovial Finan into a health care career. "In health care, you see people in their best and worst moments." Also, he said, "I was attracted to the idea of serving others."
In Catholic health care, Finan found a place to focus on bettering the lives of those at the margins: the frail elderly, the mentally ill, the homeless and the vulnerable. Finan has led the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System for over 20 years. The system is the largest provider of Medicaid and care for the uninsured in Louisiana. Finan, who has been a catalyst for improving health care access and reducing disparities in health care outcomes, especially for the poor, is a recipient of CHA's 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award.
At age 70, he has announced his intention to retire this year. He's been preparing others for that day for years, mentoring young talent and encouraging broad participating in formation activities that reinforce the Franciscan values of reverence and love for all life.
Finan embarked on his own career in health administration in 1970, when he returned to Hôtel Dieu with a master's degree in business administration from Loyola University in New Orleans. (He now chairs the university's board.) He moved on in 1976 to Good Samaritan Hospital in Mt. Vernon, Ill., where he was vice president, and then in 1984 to Barnes Hospital in St. Louis, now part of the sprawling flagship campus of BJC HealthCare.
There, he worked with some of the nation's topflight medical researchers and health-care administrators. "That was the first time I thought God was directing my path," Finan said. "I was in the midst of excellence — the bioscientists, the physicians, the team members, the Fortune 500 CEOs on the hospital board. I learned and developed new skills."
Louisiana's siren song
Louisiana has a strong pull upon natives, summed up in the 1940s jazz refrain, "Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?" Finan and his wife, Patty, had met in high school in New Orleans. They had relatives on both sides of Lake Pontchartrain. They missed family, and they craved authentic Cajun cooking. Finan also wanted to return to Catholic health care. In 1996, he left his post as a senior executive at BJC to become the first lay president and chief executive of FMOL in Baton Rouge, which was formulating a central management system for its four hospitals in Louisiana. It now has a fifth hospital in the medically underserved community of Bogalusa, a total of 14,000 employees, 1,800 licensed beds and 330,000 annual inpatient days.
Sr. Barbara Arceneaux is provincial of the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady, the congregational sponsor of the health ministry. She said of Finan: "He didn't impress me as this highfalutin guy from a big, prominent hospital here to grace us with his resume. He's a simple, friendly, family-oriented guy who establishes good relationships and accepts people for who they are."
She has been impressed by — and grateful for — his "strong sense of our Catholic mission to serve those most in need. He lives it to the core," she said. Sr. Arceneaux described Finan as a "tremendous innovator and organizer who has worked tremendously hard to put us in the solid position we are today."
At Sr. Arceneaux's request, Finan will continue assisting with FMOL's application with the Vatican to establish a public juridic person and transfer sponsorship to the entity.
FMOL's stated vision is to make a significant difference in its communities through the provision of Catholic health services. Finan said he's confident FMOL's ministry is making a difference, particularly for the poor and vulnerable, in the five communities where it has a presence — Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Gonzales, Monroe and Bogalusa (all but Monroe are in south Louisiana).
"If people in those cities woke up tomorrow and we weren't there, would they care?" Finan said. "Non-sectarian hospitals do great work. We all find ourselves in the same commercial environment, but Catholic care is foremost about the healing ministry of Christ. All hospitals make judgments. For us, it isn't just about organizational needs, but about how we serve, within the guidance of the church, our communities and every person who comes through our doors."
High water mark
Finan has guided FMOL's support for its employees and battered communities in the aftermath of weather-related catastrophes of historic proportions. An example is Finan's work to help reestablish health care in the suburb of Chalmette, just downstream on the Mississippi River from New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. (Chalmette is 80 miles from the nearest FMOL hospital.) The storm surge and flooding destroyed the local hospital and all but 200 of its almost 27,000 housing units. FMOL worked with Ascension Health to fashion a temporary health clinic with federal trailers on a Walmart parking lot and staff it for the Chalmette area's 67,000 residents as they began trickling back home.
FMOL then assisted in developing a new $70 million public hospital for Chalmette, the St. Bernard Parish Hospital, and temporarily managed it after the opening in 2012. (Louisiana is divided into parishes the way that most other U.S. states are organized as counties.) "We saw people in need and thought we could make a contribution to their recovery," Finan said.
When floods ravaged South Louisiana in August 2016, impacting 2300 FMOL employees, Finan directed that, within 24 hours, $1,000 be deposited into the bank accounts of affected individuals.
Fifteen years ago, to mentor high potential employees at FMOL and expose them to varied aspects of the business and ministry, Finan created the position of director of special projects. The appointment to the post lasts 18 months and the young administrator works directly with Finan on strategic initiatives.
Two past special projects directors are chief executives at system hospitals. One is Rene Ragas, who runs Our Lady of the Angels Hospital in Bogalusa, a former public hospital that FMOL took over in 2014. Ragas said Finan took strong and active interest in his development.
"He absolutely is a kind, caring and devoted mentor," Ragas said. "He took time to teach me about governance. He taught me how to interact with all of the stakeholders in a hospital, and how to communicate a very complicated business to people who are not involved in health care."
Finan, a past chair of CHA's board, is vice-chair of the board of Chesterfield, Mo.,-based Mercy health system. Sr. Mary Roch Rocklage, RSM, a fellow member of the Mercy board, said Finan "never loses sight of our faith-based mission. There is fire in his belly for the Catholic faith."
Finan said he is retiring so he and his wife can enjoy more time with their three children, son-in-law, daughter-in-law, and three grandsons, ages three to eight. Most of his immediate family live within driving distance of the Finan home in Covington, a town east of Baton Rouge. He and Patty are active members of St. Anselm church in nearby Madisonville.
Copyright © 2017 by the Catholic Health Association
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