Starcher injects inventiveness, community focus into faith-based health care

July 1, 2021

SISTER CONCILIA MORAN AWARD

By NANCY FRAZIER O'BRIEN

John M. Starcher Jr. was in a high school history class learning about the baby boom generation when he decided that health care would be his chosen career path.

Ever the pragmatist, he had seen the adults in his life lose jobs in steel mills and other failing industries. So, when Starcher learned about the challenges of meeting the health care needs of an aging population of boomers, he "did a little back-of-the-envelope math and thinking about my future."

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John M. Starcher Jr.

"One thing that age bracket was going to need was quality health care," he said.

A lifelong commitment to ensuring high-quality, high-value health care for all prepared Starcher to integrate the cultures and set the future path of Mercy Health and Bon Secours Health System when the systems merged in 2018 to create Bon Secours Mercy Health. As president and chief executive, he pursued a strategy focused on disease prevention, including through population health initiatives and community investments in programs that improve opportunities and quality of life for the poor and underserved.

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John Starcher addresses participants and their supporters as part of the Cincinnati Heart Mini Marathon.

Starcher, who is now chief executive of Bon Secours Mercy Health, believes getting upstream of disease is the right thing to do although this approach isn't yet getting full-throated support in most reimbursement models.

"John is an incredibly innovative leader, focused on the future of the ministry, with his commitment to the mission at the heart of all he does," said Sr. Doris Gottemoeller, RSM, chair, Bon Secours Mercy Ministries, the system's public juridic person. "Our sponsors, trustees, and management all look to him to ask the forward-leaning questions and to propose new and creative initiatives."

For his willingness to innovate and take Catholic health care in a new direction, Starcher is the recipient of the 2021 Sister Concilia Moran Award.

People-first approach
Fr. Joseph Cardone, chief mission officer of Bon Secours Mercy Health, recalls meeting Starcher 20 years ago when the priest was metro director of spiritual care and Starcher, an attorney, worked in labor relations for Catholic Health Partners. (The system changed its name to Mercy Health in 2014.)

"He came to me and said, 'Wouldn't it make sense to you that fathers would also have paid time off when having a baby?'" Fr. Cardone said. "His concern for people and for our associates was palpable, and it has only grown stronger and more intense over the years."

Starcher says he has made it a priority to ensure Bon Secours Mercy Health facilities "are places where associates want to work, clinicians want to practice, and people seek wellness."

Drivers of health
Starcher sees Catholic health care "as a social actor in the communities we serve," with an influence far beyond hospital walls, Fr. Cardone said. "Through his leadership and commitment, Bon Secours Mercy Health is using hiring, purchasing and investing to address the underlying social determinants of health," he added. It's not right, he said, that conditions in "the ZIP code in which we live can impact one's life span and overall health."

Starcher has championed Bon Secours Mercy Health's community health programs including investments in affordable housing as a way to address health disparities, improve race relations and foster systems and policies that advance health and well-being in the system's markets.

Starcher is especially proud of Bon Secours Mercy Health's involvement with the Healthcare Anchor Network, a coalition of 14 health systems that has committed more than $700 million for place-based investing to help address the economic, racial and environmental resource disparities that impact health outcomes at the community and neighborhood level.

"I've always appreciated (Catholic health care's) focus on more than treating diseases," he said. "There is more of a community focus in faith-based health care, a holistic approach more centered on the common good."

He works to promote social and racial justice within Bon Secours Mercy Health as well by investing in diversity and inclusion training for staff. The organization's overall diversity hire rate increased to 35% in 2020 from 33% in 2019. Its African American hire rate ticked up to 23.3% in 2020 from 21% in 2019.

'Do well and do good'
Starcher's career also has included stints in the academic world at the Medical College of Ohio, now the University of Toledo Medical Center, and as president and chief executive of Health Management Associates, a for-profit acute care delivery system with 71 hospitals across 15 states.

But he gladly returned to Catholic health care in 2016 as president and chief executive of Mercy Health and two years later accepted the challenge of leading the merger with Bon Secours that made Bon Secours Mercy Health the fifth largest Catholic health care system in the nation, with 60,000 associates and more than 1,200 care sites in the U.S. and Ireland.

"I wanted to prove that we in faith-based health care could act with as much alacrity as anyone else, be as research-minded as our academic peers, that we didn't have to be shoehorned into this nonprofit machine," Starcher said. "I had a strong motivation to take everything I had learned and inject it with this entrepreneurial spirit. It's not mutually exclusive to do well and do good."

The merger of Bon Secours and Mercy was "one of the fastest mergers and integrations in the history of Catholic health care," according to Brian Smith, president and chief operating officer of Bon Secours Mercy Health. Starcher "had his leadership team in place within the first three weeks — quite a feat," he added.

Smith, who has known Starcher for two decades since their time at Catholic Health Partners, said the merger "created a culture dramatically different than what we have seen elsewhere." There was "no legacy Bon Secours, no legacy Mercy Health," he added. "You can't even tell who came from where at this point."

Risk/reward
At the same time, said Fr. Cardone, Starcher "regularly reminds us of the history of the women religious that came before us."

He also tells colleagues that those women religious "didn't have it all figured out," the priest said. "John makes it clear we are following in their footsteps with all of the successes and learnings. His mantra is, 'Don't be afraid to fail.'"

In 2019 the health system signed a letter of intent to merge with the largest private health care provider in Ireland, and it restructured a joint venture in South Carolina with Roper St. Francis Healthcare. Then, in 2020 Bon Secours Mercy Health acquired three hospitals in southeastern Virginia.

"It's not growth for growth's sake," Smith said. "He's not interested in simply adding more people to the ship. It has to be something we can do well and that will improve the health of the community."

A singular event
Then came COVID. "It tested everything about who we are in health care," Starcher said. "Anyone who says they were prepared is being disingenuous. There's been nothing like it in my career and it continues to stress us to this day."

More than a year into the pandemic, though, Starcher said that "not only did we survive, but we thrived" at Bon Secours Mercy Health. "We were a respected source of truth for the communities we serve about what they should or shouldn't do. We took unbelievable care of our associates ... and assured they did not miss a paycheck. We did a lot of reimagining of how health care can be delivered."

 

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