Sr. Popko was change agent in the evolution of Catholic health care

July 1, 2012

Ask a cadre of Sr. Kathleen Popko's closest colleagues to describe her best attributes, and these are a few of their responses: She is truly selfless. She is indefatigable. She is highly intellectual, analytical and organized. She has a great sense of humor. She is totally committed to Catholic health care as an inclusive, healing and holistic ministry dedicated to the dignity of every individual.

It is for that last characteristic that Sr. Popko, SP, is being honored as a recipient of CHA's 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award.

Though Sr. Popko may be best known for her pivotal role in helping to legally combine the operations of the Sisters of Providence Health System, the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany Health System and Eastern Mercy Health System to create Catholic Health East in 1998, her involvement in Catholic health care began long before that.

Sr. Popko first studied nursing at Boston College in 1964 and went on to receive her Bachelor of Science in Nursing from the now closed Marillac College in St. Louis. After stints rotating through specialty departments — the emergency room, obstetrics and psychiatry — in three different hospitals, she says she decided to "study the social implications of what I was doing in health care" by attending the Florence G. Heller Graduate School for Advanced Studies in Social Policy at Brandeis University. She received a Master of Social Welfare in 1973 and a Doctor of Philosophy in 1975 there.

After that, Sr. Popko spent time as an assistant administrator for planning at the newly built Mercy Medical Center in Springfield, Mass. She developed new programs — from an adult day care center to a handicapped driver training program, and an expanded speech and hearing program — along with using a $490,000 grant to establish a hospital-based primary group practice in internal medicine and pediatrics.

In 1981, Sr. Popko became vice president of the Congregation of the Sisters of Providence in Holyoke, Mass. In addition to that role, she served as project director for the formation of the Sisters of Providence Health System, overseeing the development of that system's groundbreaking health and social service network and its evolution into one of the nation's first vertically integrated health systems. From 1985 to 1993, she served as president of the congregation and chair of the board of Sisters of Providence Health System. She helped lay the groundwork for the formation of CHE when she was president and chief executive of the Sisters of Providence Health System from 1994 to 1997.

Turmoil and opportunity
"That was an interesting period — one that was fraught with turmoil as for-profit hospitals began picking off smaller hospitals," recalls Sr. Popko. "We began realizing the need to incorporate freestanding facilities (within systems) to keep Catholic health care strong."

To that end, Sr. Popko became a leader in the founding of Consolidated Catholic Health Care, a consortium of Catholic health systems that built collaborative engagement among chief executives so the systems could adapt to changing demographics and health delivery models.

That experience, plus her prior tenure as president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in 1990, gave Sr. Popko a distinct dual perspective — from both sponsorship and management vantages— into the challenges and ultimately the rewards of combining Catholic health care systems to better grow and serve others.

"Sr. Kathleen served as a major change agent for Catholic health care on the national level," says Ed Connors, who was chief executive of the former Sisters of Mercy Health System in Detroit and later served as chair of the steering committee that helped to form CHE. "She had significant influence with other religious congregations and sponsors, and she adeptly used this influence to help them understand and actively support the changes that were necessary to go from independent operations to structures of shared authority, responsibility and permanent commitment. Sponsors listened to her and trusted her. They were energized by her enthusiasm and passion; she was able to provide leadership at a very crucial time in the history of health care women religious in this country."

Sr. Mary Caritas Geary, SP, calls Sr. Popko "a true visionary. She has an uncanny ability to look ahead of the curve. She was one of the first to courageously voice a controversial, unpopular viewpoint that stand-alone hospitals, for the most part, did not have a future. Then she worked very, very hard to create a system of coordinated care that did not stray from her special dedication to care for the poor, elderly and disadvantaged." Sr. Geary, vice president of the Sisters of Providence, and the 2002 recipient of CHA's Lifetime Achievement Award, has been a friend and mentor to Sr. Popko for more than 50 years.

Servant leadership
Sr. Popko's selflessness is what Dan Russell found most impressive during the years he worked with her to launch the new health care system. "Sr. Kathleen was one of the most powerful leaders in Catholic health at the time, yet she took a supporting role to help shepherd the Sisters of Providence Health System into CHE. Her values were never about her personal or professional best interests, but rather about how to strengthen Catholic health care ministry," says Russell, a former chief executive of what was then Eastern Mercy Health System, and the first president and chief executive of CHE. He was the 2005 recipient of CHA's Lifetime Achievement Award.

Once CHE was formed in 1998, Sr. Popko took on the role as executive vice president of its northeast division, providing support and oversight for multiple organizations located from Maine to Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and Pennsylvania.

"Sr. Kathleen was a joy to work with — always a team player. Everyone appreciated her dedication, sense of humor and friendly demeanor É she was trusted by everyone," Russell recalls. "As a leader of her congregation, a religious leader, leader of a hospital, leader of a regional system and with leadership positions in a national system, she had a unique breadth of knowledge and experience."

During her 12 years as executive vice president of CHE and a member of its senior management team, the organization, based in Newtown Square, Pa., flourished. Today it spans 11 eastern states, from Maine to Florida, and includes 35 acute care hospitals, four long-term care hospitals, 26 freestanding and hospital-based long-term care facilities, 12 assisted living facilities, four continuing care retirement communities, eight behavioral health/rehabilitation facilities, 31 home health/hospice agencies, and numerous ambulatory and

community-based health services. With 60,000 full-time employees, CHE is also the largest not-for-profit provider of home health care services in the nation, and the leading provider of Programs for All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly. Sr. Geary says Sr. Popko saw the need for and benefit of PACE programs before most people even knew what they were.

In 2006, Sr. Popko became executive vice president for strategy and ministry development of CHE. In 2009, she once again took on the role of president of the Sisters of Providence, and, at 68 and with no plans to retire, she continues to develop new health care models, including an affordable, elderly housing community integrated on the same campus with a PACE program.

And though she remains completely committed to "achieving better health care outcomes by developing more integrated delivery models so no one 'falls through the cracks,'" Sr. Popko does admit to taking some time off every now and then to play golf, travel, enjoy her grandnieces and grandnephews, and root for her beloved Boston Red Sox.

"This has been an extraordinary adventure for me," she says. "I've been blessed to have the opportunity to work not only as a leader of religious life but also in the health care ministries. In doing so, I've met wonderful people who have encouraged, mentored and supported me as we've worked together towards shared visions that are motivated by gospel values."


Copyright © 2012 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2012 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.