How Ascension's new CEO Joe Impicciche is ushering in the next generation of leadership

In July, Joseph Impicciche took the helm of St. Louis-based Ascension, one of the largest health systems in the U.S., following the retirement of longtime CEO Anthony Tersigni, EdD.

Mr. Impicciche comes to the role of president and CEO as Ascension restructures its leadership and completes a national rebrand. He previously served as Ascension's president and COO, and prior to that, as executive vice president and general counsel. Mr. Impicciche's background is in public finance and tax law. He was a partner in a law firm before joining Ascension. 

Becker's caught up with Mr. Impicciche to discuss the transition and Ascension's latest work around healthcare issues defining 2019, including gun violence and price transparency. 

Editor's note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Question: Ascension operates on the mission of providing compassionate, personalized care to everyone, especially those most in need. How does Ascension’s charity care, as part of its overall operating revenue, stack up to that of other nonprofit hospitals and safety-nets, in your opinion?

Joe Impicciche: Last year, we provided approximately $2 billion in charity care and community benefit. Many of our hospitals serve as the safety-net for communities across the country. Caring for the poor and underserved is core to who we are and what we do. Our community benefit programs are designed to reach some of the most vulnerable people in our communities, and that's been our mission ever since Ascension was formed.

Q: Does this mission adequately distinguish Catholic hospitals from secular nonprofits in 2019?

JI: I think Catholic hospitals are different. Our system certainly sees our self as extending the healing ministry of Jesus and that influences everything that we do. That's a mission that goes back 2,000 years, and one that we feel very privileged to serve.

Q: Your predecessor, Dr. Anthony Tersigni, served Ascension for more than 15 years. That is quite a tenure to succeed, especially given that the average tenure for CEOs in healthcare is about five years. What is the greatest benefit of inheriting a role after a longtime leader?

JI: Tony Tersigni has been a terrific servant leader. He has made such a positive impact on our system and Catholic healthcare in general. His impact will be felt for generations to come. If I can accomplish just a fraction of what Tony accomplished, I will have a very successful tenure.

Tony has been a terrific mentor. He's a good friend and it's a privilege to be asked to step up and serve in this role, given everything he's done for our ministry.

Q: What is the greatest challenge of inheriting this role?  

JI: I don't think about it that way. I have been asked to step up to lead and bridge a well-established, stable leadership team to a next generation of leaders. And that's how I see my role.

Q: Dr. Tersigni's retirement triggered a chain of changes within Ascension's leadership team. Can you tell us about how you realigned the team and created cohesion after these changes?

JI: We're only seven or eight weeks into this, but I would tell you that there is incredible engagement and alignment around our mission. We are very committed to serving all people with a special attention to the poor and vulnerable. And I would tell you that that alignment is real. This team of new leaders is committed to our mission and in serving the poor.

Q: Ascension has been working on a national unified branding for years — the largest rebrand ever by a U.S. healthcare provider. What results do you want to see from this effort?

JI: There are several positives stemming from the rebranding effort. For one, I think culturally it's brought us all together. It's helped our journey to "One Ascension." Our associates better identify with the organization, and it's helped break down some of the silos and identification with a particular hospital or a site of care. Now our associates are more identified with the system as a whole and what we're doing as a system. We're more effective, speaking with one voice, having a common brand. It also helps our patients navigate and access our system and understand the resources that a system like ours can bring to bear. Having a national brand has been a game changer as we pivot to more consumer friendly and accessible care.

Q: You recently wrote in a statement following the El Paso and Dayton mass shootings that "Silence in the face of such tragedy and wrongdoing falls short of our mission to advocate for a compassionate and just society." What is Ascension doing to address gun violence? 

JI: We feel that this is a public health issue. That's because of our mission and that we advocate for a passionate, just society. We're speaking out and we're encouraging others to speak out. We believe each American ought to be having this conversation. As a country, we ought to be having this conversation. We need to address this and find a way to significantly mitigate the tragic situation that's occurring in this country.

Q: Expensive medical bills, surprise or not, are a growing issue for patients. What steps is Ascension taking to make prices more transparent for patients?

JI: We very much support meaningful price transparency. I think it's very important that people understand what a service is going to cost them. But simply publishing your chargemaster, which might have thousands of codes, is not helpful to anyone. We feel like meaningful transparency is important. At Ascension, for example, for our associates, we have rolled out tools to help them understand whether a particular service is covered and if not, what the deductible is and so on. That's the kind of transparency that will be important to consumers and those that we serve.

Q: The Trump administration has also moved to make negotiated prices between payers and providers more transparent. What are your thoughts on this proposal?

JI: Well again, I don't see that necessarily as helping a typical consumer. We would focus more on transparency that's going to be informative and that's going to help decision-making. I'm not sure whether transparency around negotiated rates would trickle down to the consumer to allow them to actually make informed decisions. Beyond that, the proposal doesn't take into account our system's charity care policy and adjustments we would make for the poor and vulnerable.

I would also say I think it's important if we're going to talk about transparency in this arena, that it needs to apply to everyone. Not just hospitals, but it should also apply to pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies and all providers.

Q: What can you tell us about your strategic focus moving forward?

JI: To accelerate our advanced strategic direction, we launched our mission-inspired transformation work, which has three prongs. One is, it's a reorganization of our structure. We've flattened the organization and dispersed decision-making. We're promoting a culture of more empowered leaders.

We've also created eight design teams to advance this work — We have a design team focused on health and healing in the home. We have a team focused on redesigning our front doors and looking at increasing our access. We have others focused on the caregiver model, on integrated systems of human flourishing, redesigning surgery, growing covered lives through strategic purchasing contracts, the consumer engagement platform and re-imagining our acute care footprint.

The teams are led by an executive sponsor, which would be one of our senior leaders, and they're comprised of associates across our ministries. They are multidisciplinary teams, with folks from various backgrounds working together in very new ways. That work is going well.

Q: Healthcare is a top issue among voters this election season. What healthcare issue do you feel is most important for candidates to address?

JI: This country is obviously in a robust debate around healthcare delivery and healthcare financing. But I feel like as a country we've skipped over the real question, and that is whether healthcare is a right. We firmly believe it is. We are very committed to 100 percent coverage, 100 percent access for every American. That's something we feel ought to be addressed by this country as part of the 2020 election.


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