Background: Donna Shalala as "Visionary" President of the University of Miami
Donna Shalala, formerly the US Secretary for Health and Human Services, became President of the University of Miami in 2001 (see her official biography). She has since been hailed literally for her "visionary leadership" (as recipient of the Health Leadership Award from the National Hispanic Medical Association in 2005). In 2008, then US President George W Bush awarded her the US Medal of Freedom, the highest US civilian award, as "one of our nation’s most distinguished educators and public officials. She has worked tirelessly to ensure that all Americans can enjoy lives of hope, promise and dignity.")
At the University of Miami, as described in a detailed investigative report by Paul Basken in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2011, Ms Shalala pursued a grand strategic vision to " bring the University of Miami into the ranks of the nation's elite research universities." In an interview at that time, she claimed to have had "a very disciplined strategic plan to make this place much, much better, to move into the top ranks of American universities."
Cracks in the Wall Appear in 2011
However, Mr Basken reported that by 2011, that strategy was showing signs of failure. He noted problems including rising deficits and a worsening credit rating; allegations that the university was failing to meet the needs of the poor patients for whom its doctors had traditionally cared for at Jachson Memorial Hospital while favoring paying patients at its newly acquired medical center; and concerns about conflicts of interest affecting top leadership of the university, including Ms Shalala (see our post here). At the time, university leadership scoffed at the importance of these problems. For example, Ms Shalala ridiculed doctors "who gripe" that the university had become over-extended by pushing research over patient care as "these people complaining they want to live their little lives without being researchers."
After the 2011 report came out, Ms Shalala ridiculed it in print as "a shocking example of irresponsible and lazy reporting."
Note that on Health Care Renewal, we had previously raised questions about Ms Shalala's conflicts of interests, particularly her role on the board of UnitedHealth at the time its CEO was receiving hundreds of millions in back-dated stock options (in 2006, look here); and about her priorities, including the contrast between her lavish compensation, which encompassed her residence in a fully-staffed mansion, and how the university treated its low level workers, particularly its janitors who did not receive health insurance (also in 2006, look here).
The Cracks Widen in 2012
In retrospect, Mr Basken's article appears quite responsible and accurate. Last week the Miami Herald reported that Ms Shalala's "ambitious moves vaulted UM’s medical school to the national stage — but they may also have seriously damaged it." Soon after Ms Shalala ridiculed the Chronicle of Higher Education article, already internal reports showing even more trouble were appearing.
As far back as October, billionaire car dealer Norman Braman wrote in a memo to fellow UM trustees that he and colleagues had been receiving anonymous letters for months 'outlining a host of wrongdoings, mostly at the medical school. Braman and others closely tied to the school warned UM officials the medical school was spending too much, too fast in the push to build a world-class medical center.
There were problems beyond those described by the CHE article:
The medical school also had major problems of its own. According to internal documents, the school suffered from bloated staffing, a faulty billing system and prices that sometimes ran much higher than at other South Florida hospitals. Internal controls apparently were weak at best: A whopping $14 million in expensive cancer drugs disappeared from a UM pharmacy over three years before an employee was charged with theft in June 2011.
The medical school’s difficulties even began to impede its relationship with the ailing, taxpayer-financed Jackson Health System, endangering a decades-long partnership with the public hospital system.
The Herald article includes substantially more detail to support these assertions.
Trustee Braman summarized it thus:
Poorly conceived decisions by the medical school administration have put the university at significant risk and, at the same time, injured Jackson Memorial Hospital.
As we noted, earlier this year the university's financial problems lead to layoffs, but at the same time, the university was building an even fancier mansion for President Shalala. After the lay-offs, Braman said they were:
a real tragedy that never should have happened. ... The people at the top were very much more interested in flash than substance.
Since the early 1990s we have suffered the rise of extremely confident, extremely well-paid, "visionary" health care leaders. Anyone within the organization who doubted their visions risked being labeled a malcontent or worse. Any skeptic outside the organization might be met by a barrage of propaganda from the organization's well financed public relations operation. Yet the visions these leaders produced often appeared to be clouded at best.
One of the most striking early examples remained anechoic for a long time. The then CEO of the Allegheny Health Education and Research Foundation, Sharif Abdelhak, was publicly labeled a "visionary" and "genius" for assembling a large, vertically oriented health care system, which eventually went bankrupt. Abedlhak went to jail. (Look here for summary). In the greater business world, whose culture now seems to rule health care, there are other examples of such failed visionaries (look here). Yet this case, and other since, have largely been ignored.
However, as the case of the leadership of the University of Miami now seems to show in retrospect, many people seem to fall again and again for the now tired hucksterism of the "visionary," or "genius" leader selling grandiose and often self-serving pipe dreams.
Maybe it would be enough in health care to simply aspire to good patient care, responsible education, and honest research.
Meanwhile, health care professionals, health policy leaders, and the public at large should start showing appropriately pointed skepticism of our current self-proclaimed "visionary" leadership.