The corner office: Ascension CEO Dr. Anthony Tersigni on cutting through the red tape

"I get a lot of satisfaction in helping eliminate red tape. That's what I love to do — eliminate red tape and kind of get through the very bureaucratic and fragmented state of healthcare in this country today. This [position] really gives me, personally, an opportunity to do that."

Anthony Tersigni, EdD, is the first president and CEO of Ascension, a Catholic healthcare organization and parent of St. Louis-based Ascension Health, the largest Catholic and nonprofit health system in the U.S.

The system has 131 hospitals and more than 30 senior care facilities in 23 states and Washington, D.C. Other Ascension subsidiaries focus on different service areas like biomedical engineering, treasury management and venture capital investing.

Ascension was formed in 2012 from a reorganization of Ascension Health, which was formed in 1999. Prior to his current appointment, Dr. Tersigni was president and CEO of Ascension Health after previously serving as the system's executive vice president and COO.

From 1995 to 2000, Dr. Tersigni was president and CEO of St. John Health (now St. John Providence Health System) in Detroit. He also served the St. John Health system as executive vice president and COO from 1994 to 1995.

He and his wife, Flora, have three children and four grandchildren.

Here, Dr. Tersigni took the time to answer Becker's Hospital Review's seven questions. Tersigni head shot

What's one thing that really piqued your interest in healthcare?

Healthcare is a business model really focused on helping people, and helping people oftentimes in their most vulnerable state. And what I love about it is you have to use all the business acumen to keep the organization sustainable while you're trying to meet the needs of the people that you're serving. It's always been of interest to me.

People come to us and they're anxious. They're sick. They're intimidated by our organizational structures — [the] buildings and campuses. It's an opportunity for us to really get personal with them and help them through that journey. I get a lot of satisfaction in helping eliminate red tape. That's what I love to do — eliminate red tape and kind of get through the very bureaucratic and fragmented state of healthcare in this country today. This [position] really gives me, personally, an opportunity to do that.

What do you enjoy most about the St. Louis area?

My wife and I have lived in St. Louis for the last 15 years, and St. Louis is the best kept secret in the Midwest. It's got great arts, a great science center, great universities, great sports, great parks — that's one thing. The other thing is it has a great and active business leader community, which is really interesting. They're very active in the community, wanting to make the community a better place to work, live and play, but they're also strong in philanthropic support for various parts of the community. Those are the kinds of things that really made my wife and I fall in love with St. Louis.

If you could eliminate one of the healthcare industry's problems overnight, which would it be? 

It would be trying to get this country to create one national health policy. Since World War II, we've cobbled together what I characterize as financing policies, and we've actually taken models of care from other parts of the world and have brought it to this country. And that's what's complicating, that's what's fragmenting.

If you're over 65 in this country, you're in a model very similar to the national health model in Canada, where virtually everyone participates at low administrative fees and the government is the insurer and everybody pays into it.

If you're under 65, you're in a model that's very similar to Germany, Japan or France, where employees or employers pay premiums, [and] the insurance companies are paying the bills and passing on co-pays and deductibles, as well as sometimes a percentage of the bill, to the patient.

If you're a Native American or a military veteran, you're in a model that's very similar to the National Health Service in [Great] Britain, where all the hospitals are owned, the physicians are all employed and no one gets a bill.

And if you're uninsured, you're actually in a model that you'll see in Cambodia or rural India, where if you don't have cash and access to care you're either going to stay sick or injured, or die.

And so you've got four different models of payment, of processes. As a society, let's step back. Let's decide what we want for every man, woman and child in this country, and then let's design the system around that. And that's what we've been lacking for over 70 years in this country.

What do you consider your greatest talent or skill outside of the C-suite?

I really work at being a good listener. I'm a behaviorist, and I like to understand the meanings behind words people are using. [I] really try to get down to what they are trying to communicate to me and how I react to that communication, whether it's a question or concern or just a statement. And so I think if you talk to people who know me, [they'd say] when you're speaking with me, you've got my full attention.

How do you revitalize yourself?

I'm a very disciplined individual with my workout habits, my eating habits and my structured prayer habits. [Also,] my wife [and I] have date nights. We've been married 38 years and we have date nights to reconnect. And obviously our four grandchildren [play a role]. If you ask them, I'm the greatest grandfather in the world because I let them do anything they want to do, especially everything I wouldn't let my children do.

What's one piece of advice you remember most clearly?

I had a great mentor who happened to be my godfather through our faith, and he was just a very successful businessman who I really looked up to. I always remember, as I was starting my career, he said to me, "In order for any leader to be successful, [first] go out and get people that are smarter than you. Don't be intimidated by that. Don't be afraid of hiring people that are smarter than you. Give them the resources that they need to do their job and just get the heck out of their way." And I've never forgotten that. I'd like to think that I have lived that formula for the most part. I've got the best healthcare team in the country who's much smarter than I will ever be. We've done some remarkable things because of their leadership capabilities.

What do you consider your greatest achievement at Ascension so far?

I don't have any great achievements. My team has great achievements. One is our Call to Action, which we created in 2002, which was to promise to the communities we serve healthcare that works, healthcare that's safe and healthcare that leaves no one behind. We have stayed true to that course over the last 13, 14 years. We've made some tweaks along the way to respond to the market, but we've stayed true to that Call to Action. I think that's a hallmark of a great organization.

Secondly, I would say our commitment to the poor and vulnerable. Last year alone, we invested $1.8 billion in charity care and community benefit and that has grown substantially since 1999. The reason I say that is we've been on a mission. We need to have everybody with 100 percent access, 100 percent coverage, and until we do that, we will continue to invest in those kinds of services and programs that will take care of people [who] fall through the cracks. The last achievement is [Ascension's] Leadership Academy. It's our legacy of trying to create the next generation of leaders for this great ministry.


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