What financial accountability looks like at Gundersen Health System: 4 Qs with finance VP Perry Breazeale

The rising cost of healthcare remains one of the most pressing issues in the nation, holding the attention of politicians and industry thought leaders alike.

The crisis places considerable financial burdens on both providers and patients. In 2017, the national health expenditure increased by 3.9 percent to $3.5 trillion with $365.5 billion coming from patients' out-of-pocket expenses alone. Total healthcare costs are
projected to hit nearly $6 trillion by 2027, according to CMS estimates.

In 2018, leaders at La Crosse, Wis.-based Gundersen Health System partnered with healthcare solutions provider Strata Decision Technology to tackle the cost crisis in the communities it serves by revamping budgetary strategies and improving the financial decision-making capabilities of leaders across the organization's departments. With six hospitals and various other care sites, Gundersen Health System serves the citizens of 21 counties across western Wisconsin, northeastern Iowa and southeastern Minnesota.

Recently, Perry Breazeale, Vice President of Finance at Gundersen Health System, spoke with Becker's about his organization's new approach to financial accountability and the biggest challenges in healthcare today.

Note: These responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Question: What are the biggest challenges in healthcare today?

Perry Breazeale: The current cost structure in healthcare is not sustainable, particularly as the Medicare population grows. It's a huge budget issue for the government, and there's a lot of folks out there who need care who aren't getting it. They just can't afford it. It's our job in healthcare to try to ease that financial burden.

Another major challenge is converting data and analytics into actionable plans. Obviously, in healthcare, we have millions and millions of lines of data in different systems. This data has to be put into a format that our clinicians and staff can use to take better care of our patients and make better financial decisions.

Q: How is Gundersen Health System focusing on financial accountability throughout the organization?

PB: When I think about financial accountability, I think about how we can make sure we're accountable internally and externally. Internally, we are focused on giving our directors the tools they need to be the “CFOs” of their areas of responsibility. Our current partnership with Strata is going to allow us to do that.

We've also been focused on cutting our costs by eliminating unnecessary inpatient and ambulatory variation in the clinical and practice area. This shift will allow us to continue to drive down costs and pass savings on to our patients.

Q: Did you confront any big challenges when you started to explore the budgeting system at Gundersen?

PB: One of the biggest challenges was the fact that multiple disparate systems and technologies were being used to make financial decisions across the organization. The data we captured often could not be reconciled between the systems. When that happens, mistakes can happen. We believe that by leveraging the Strata platform, we will now have a single source of truth. Strata pulls data from the different systems into one place and converts that data into actionable plans, which allows us all to sing off the same sheet of music.

Q: Any advice for hospitals that are starting to embark on a similar journey?

PB: I would advise them first to be very honest with themselves and determine where they have areas of weakness. Those need to be addressed first. If you can't do it internally, find a strategic partner to help  turn those identified areas of weakness into strengths. We ultimately selected Strata as our decision support partner. It was obvious that they had the best platform to help us. As we've moved along this journey with them, I'm confident we made the right decision. They've become a strategic partner — not just a software vendor. They've helped us through every step of the process and have developed a great understanding of our organization.

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