On the day James Connolly was to interview for a position leading the largest hospital in Schenectady County, he put on his best blue suit and showed up early to the hospital to relax, read the paper, have a cup of coffee.
The first headline he saw? The state-appointed Berger Commission had finally issued its edicts on statewide health reform. Among them, the recommendations that Ellis Hospital merge with St. Clare’s and that Bellevue Woman’s Hospital in Niskayuna close.
He knew going into the interview that a merger was possible, but he didn’t know whether he’d be the one leading it or being led.
“I was like, ‘This is very bizarre,’ ” he recalled. “I went in and the first thing they said was, ‘Here’s a taste of what you’re getting into.’ ”
Connolly, a Long Island native who was serving as chief executive officer at Glens Falls Hospital at the time, was named Ellis Hospital’s new president and CEO in February 2007. He took over the next month, kicking off an eight-year tenure that included consolidating three local hospital systems into one, multimillion-dollar capital projects that would expand Ellis’ reach into a coveted Saratoga County market, and a new regional alliance that’s changing the way Medicare patients get care.
All along, he had only tastes of what he was getting into (the Affordable Care Act anyone?), but that was OK, as long as he could see a project through to its end. That’s why in February, Connolly says, as Ellis neared the finish line on its last Berger-related project and geared up for a new chapter, he announced his retirement from the hospital.
The Board of Trustees appointed Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Paul Milton acting president and CEO while it considers a national search for a permanent replacement.
“I am not retiring from working,” Connolly said Monday in his first interview since the announcement. “I’m not going out to pasture. What I am doing is stepping away from hospitals. I’ve been in hospitals for 40 years now. I’ve put in my time. It’s a very intense environment with tremendous amounts of changes and you know what? After a while it can start to wear you out. And I looked at this ER expansion as the crowning touch on Berger and I said I’ve come to the end of the path.”
All of the grand Ellis projects to come — namely, a new regional alliance with St. Peter’s Health Partners in Albany and St. Mary’s Healthcare in Amsterdam — were multiyear projects that were just getting started.
“I looked at what was next,” he said. “They were projects with five-year windows. I’m not working for another five years. I had a real hard stop in my head about where I was going to go. So I asked myself, why would I want to start something I’m not going to be able to finish and what do I really love doing?”
The stuff Connolly really loves doing — like dreaming up health care models that would keep people out of the hospital — he could never fully devote himself to while running a hospital, he said. In his retirement, he hopes to work as a consultant on population health programs that will provide Schenectady’s poorest and sickest with a more sensible continuum of care, one that will keep them from seeking expensive, sporadic care in emergency rooms.
During his tenure, Connolly launched several programs in concert with area organizations in an effort to identify and address any unmet health and social needs in the county. In 2013, Ellis joined with about 40 local agencies to assess the community’s health, behaviors and access to care through a campaign called UMatter Schenectady.
A door-to-door survey found that the city’s poorest struggled with asthma, smoking, diabetes, obesity, inappropriate ER use, mental health, substance abuse and adolescent pregnancy. Ellis then worked with local agencies to come up with an action plan for each of these health concerns.
“I really love this community health stuff,” Connolly said. “I really love trying to develop models that are going to keep people well and keep them out of hospitals. But it is difficult if not impossible to really push that agenda out when you’re responsible for running a hospital day in and day out. I would say it’s impossible. So I’m retiring, but I’m going to stay in health care. It won’t be in an institution-centric role, but I want to do something that’s more community based and that helps the indigent. UMatter was such good stuff and there’s more work that needs to be done.”
Connolly has worked in hospitals since 1974. He served as president and CEO of Mercy Hospital in Buffalo from 1996 to 1999, then as senior vice president of its parent company, Catholic Health System, from 2000 to 2001. That year, he was named COO at Glens Falls Hospital, where he served prior to being named Ellis CEO.
The board of trustees will appoint a search committee to conduct a national search for Connolly’s replacement. Milton has expressed a desire to throw his hat in the ring. Board chair Deborah Mullaney said there is no timeline attached to the search.
“The board and Jim had been talking for several weeks about this,” she said. “It was a two-way conversation, but he chose to retire at this time. He has been a transformational leader in terms of population health, so he will probably be in a great deal of demand.”
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