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Updated: August 19, 2019 FOCUS: Health Care

Incoming Hartford HealthCare CEO Flaks talks vision and strategy

HBJ Photo | Matt Pilon Hartford HealthCare’s newly named CEO Jeffrey Flaks in his One State Street office in Hartford.

One summer 30 years ago, as he prepared to head off to college, Jeffrey Flaks drove a delivery car for a southern Connecticut pharmacy, and would enter Bridgeport-based St. Vincent’s Medical Center through its loading dock.

Soon, he’ll be walking through the 473-bed hospital’s front doors as CEO of its parent company.

Flaks, a Connecticut native who earlier in his career worked in hospital systems in several other states, is taking the reins Sept. 1 of Hartford HealthCare, the not-for-profit health system that is barely recognizable from the time he started working there in 2004.

That was when he became chief operating officer of MidState Medical Center in Meriden, which at the time was the only other HHC hospital besides its Hartford flagship.

Flaks, 48, of West Hartford, has climbed the executive ranks (he became HHC’s president in 2016) as the health system’s tendrils have spread under the leadership of now-retiring CEO Elliot Joseph, whom Flaks helped recruit to Hartford after working with him in Detroit in the 1990s.

Since Joseph’s 2008 arrival, HHC has grown from a $1 billion two-hospital system with just over 6,000 employees to a $4.3 billion healthcare giant. Its most recent addition is St. Vincent’s Medical Center, after state regulators approved the acquisition last week.

It’s HHC’s seventh acute-care hospital, boosting its Connecticut footprint to more than 300 locations and roughly 25,000 employees.

The deal ramps up HHC’s presence in a prosperous region that it historically ceded to Yale New Haven Health and other competitors.

Meanwhile, HHC over the past decade, amid acquisition sprees by existing competitors like Yale and new ones like Trinity Health of New England, has built up a large footprint of outpatient facilities such as urgent care and surgery and imaging centers, vastly scaled up its medical group, nearly tripled its homecare patient volume, and become a major provider of behavioral health services.

In recent years, it’s also gobbled up market share in key business lines such as orthopedics, with the help of its $150 million Bone & Joint Institute that opened in Hartford in late 2016.

“We spent the last 10 years building this, and that required us to put the pieces together, so that now we can spend the next 10 years optimizing this health system,” Flaks said in a recent interview seated in his One State Street corner office in HHC’s executive suite that overlooks downtown Hartford.

Flaks reflected on HHC’s growth and shared some insights into what might be ahead.

Health care imitates Apple

What does optimizing mean, exactly?

Flaks said he wants the pieces of the health system to work like the Apple ecosystem of products.

“You’ve got the laptop, iPad, iPhone, Apple Music and a whole series of apps that work together so congruently that collectively, the ecosystem anticipates your needs and does it more efficiently with a higher level of satisfaction,” he said.

The journey is underway, as HHC has linked all of its hospitals and other care sites to its central electronic health record system, and is ramping up technologies like telehealth.

But Flaks said there’s much more to be done.

“Three to five years from now, we’ll look back at what we’re doing today and say ‘I cant believe that we were satisfied with that moment,’ ” he said.

As the Bone & Joint Institute approaches its fourth anniversary, Flaks hinted at further transformation ahead for HHC’s flagship campus.

This fall, HHC plans to announce a multimillion-dollar construction project that will expand the hospital’s intensive-care capabilities and add more private rooms.

“It’s going to be a substantial project,” Flaks said, adding it was too early to share further details.

Flaks also said HHC will announce a 15,000-square-foot lease somewhere in downtown Hartford later this year to house its supply-chain division.

That will add to the system’s growing presence downtown. HHC moved its corporate offices to One State Street in 2011. Earlier this year, it announced a healthcare technology accelerator program that will launch in November at Constitution Plaza.

Asked about making more deals in the years ahead, Flaks indicated it will be on the table.

“To the extent that there are organizations or services that we don’t do today or need to do differently, we’re absolutely going to continue to grow the health system,” he said.

Healthcare costs

Health systems seeking approval to acquire hospitals often tout benefits like expanded access for consumers, beefing up physician recruiting, and improving quality and efficiency.

However, studies have also shown that consolidation tends to lead to higher healthcare prices. (Drug prices and other factors also play a key role.)

After a wave of hospital consolidations this decade, healthcare remains expensive for Connecticut consumers and employers, with average premiums and deductibles ranking in the top 10 among states as of 2018, according to federal data.

Flaks said costs are on his mind, and insists HHC is already trying to do its part to restrain them.

For example, he said the system over the years has pushed more patient services and procedures out of the hospital, where they tend to cost the most, and into outpatient facilities.

In addition, its joint venture with GoHealth Urgent Care is expected to draw more than 200,000 patients this year — some of whom would have otherwise gone to a costly emergency room.

Angela Mattie, a professor of healthcare management and medical sciences at Quinnipiac University’s medical school, said the challenge for hospital systems, including Hartford HealthCare, is a complicated one.

“The threat comes down to ‘how do we get the best value, how do we lower costs and increase quality at the same time?’ ” Mattie said. “And ‘how do we survive the paradigm shift?’ ”

Flaks will be in charge of ensuring HHC continues to keep its key service lines financially viable, while reacting to changes and defending his market share from emerging, well-financed competitors, such as UnitedHealthcare-owned Optum.

“We have to do that simultaneously,” he said. “That’s the art and the science of what we’re creating, but we’ve made enormous progress.”

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