The enigma of Steward CEO Dr. Ralph de la Torre

Throughout the downfall of Steward Healthcare, its founder and CEO — Ralph de la Torre, MD — has remained quiet. The Boston Globe spoke with nearly 50 people who knew him, and painted the picture of a complicated person.  

2024 so far has been rife with concern from federal lawmakers, Steward employees, and community members about the future and longevity of the 33-hospital, multistate system after news in late 2023 it was around $50 million behind on its rent owed to Medical Properties Trust, the largest U.S. hospital landlord. 

Since then, for-profit, Dallas-based Steward has stayed in the headlines. Attention and concern has poured out of Massachusetts and nine other states where the system has a presence, prompting closer looks at its financial strategy and dealings. Focus on Steward has been steady. Yet Dr. de la Torre, founding chairman and CEO of the system that he formed in 2010 out of Boston's struggling Caritas Christi Health Care, has been relatively hard to come by. 

In written responses to The Boston Globe submitted this month via an exchange facilitated by his lawyer and a company spokesman, Dr. de la Torre said, "This has been the most stressful time in my life, but more importantly, I know that it has been even more stressful for the communities we serve," the local news outlet reported March 29. 

Dr. de la Torre told the Globe that the entire leadership team of Steward, including himself, threatened to resign in 2020 amid intense financial pressure early on in the COVID-19 pandemic when, he says, Cerberus Capital Management wanted to put the chain into bankruptcy. Dr. de la Torre said he "fought to keep our hospitals open." 

The New York City-based private equity firm, however, told the Globe this situation is unfamiliar to them.

"Cerberus never recommended or even considered a Steward bankruptcy during the COVID pandemic, or at any other time during our ownership," the company said in a statement to the newspaper. "Nor do we have any knowledge of Steward management wanting to resign from their duties at any point in time."

Cerberus ultimately sold its ownership stake in Steward in 2020 to a management group headed by Dr. de la Torre.

The Globe's reporting paints the picture of Dr. de la Torre as a promising and competitive cardiac surgeon before forming Steward in 2010. "He had that know-it-when-you-see-it presence that filled a room. He was brilliant, passionate, forceful, and almost hypnotically persuasive," the report states. 

But a complicated picture emerges of the healthcare figurehead. Sources also knew him to be "thin-skinned, suspicious, quick to anger, and nearly impossible to argue with because he could never admit being wrong," the Globe reports. They also describe a penchant for secrecy around the health system's strategy and finances. 

At its former Massachusetts headquarters was a "blackout room," with walls engineered to block cell and Wi-Fi signals, and a C-suite guarded by extra locks, according to the Globe report. Anonymous sources say that invoices commonly went unpaid for months and the system never seemed to have enough cash. 

Meanwhile, Dr. de la Torre's lifestyle ascended to the upper echelon, with his wealth becoming increasingly visible. Dr. de la Torre said he understands the criticism he has received over his wealth in recent months considering Steward's financial distress, but argues that the original Caritas hospital chain would not have survived without the formation of Steward in 2010.

Some healthcare sources are on the record with their opinions of the CEO.

"I don't have any respect for him," Jack Connors, former chairman of Partners HealthCare, now called Mass General Brigham, told the Globe. Mr. Connors noted that there was a time people in Boston healthcare pursued medicine to serve patients, not to "become billionaires." 

"You don't want to get in his way when he wants to get something done," Andrew Stern, former president of the Service Employees International Union, told the outlet of Dr. de la Torre.

"It's sort of a classic story, of a driven person who was gradually blinded by his own hubris," said David Torchiana, former cardiac surgeon, former CEO of Partners HealthCare and mentor to Dr. de la Torre. 

Read the Globe's lengthy profile of Dr. de la Torre in full here.

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