Editor’s note: Updates throughout the story.
St. Edward Mercy CEO Jeff Johnston is leaving the Fort Smith hospital to lead St. John’s Mercy in St. Louis — the largest hospital among the 28 in the St. Louis-based Sisters of Mercy network.
Johnston, who joined St. Edward as CEO in December 2008, begins his new role Sept. 1. The St. Louis hospital has 979 licensed beds, includes a children’s hospital with the state’s largest Level III neonatal intensive care unit as well as St. Louis County’s only Level I trauma unit.
The St. Edward Mercy Health System operates the main hospital campus in Fort Smith and three critical access hospitals in Waldron, Paris and Ozark as well as Mercy Clinic with 9 locations and more than 80 providers. It employs more than 2,000 and has a service area of more than 400,000 people in 13 counties in Arkansas and Oklahoma.
Kim Day, president of Mercy Central Communities, will serve as interim CEO during a search for Johnston’s replacement. Day has responsibilities for the Mercy facilities in Joplin and Springfield, Mo., as well as all of Arkansas (Fort Smith, Hot Springs and Rogers) and Kansas (Fort Scott and Independence).
"The search starts immediately. We are looking inside of Mercy in hopes of identifying a strong candidate," Day said in a statement. "We feel like this is a likely possibility, but if necessary we will look outside the organization. The goal is to get this position filled as quickly as possible with the right person for Fort Smith."
Johnston joined the Sisters of Mercy system in 2001, and arrived in Fort Smith in December 2008. Prior roles with Mercy included senior vice president – operations for Mercy Memorial Health Center, Ardmore, Okla. (2001–2004), chief operating officer for Mercy Health Center, Oklahoma City (2004 to 2008), and interim CEO of Mercy Health System of Oklahoma (2006 to 2007). He earned bachelor’s degree in business administration from Southern Nazarene University, Bethany, Okla. Johnston obtained a master’s in business administration and hospital/health administration, from Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio.
“We are thankful to Jeff for his leadership at St. Edward Mercy and his work on the community master plan,” said Day. “This plan was crafted with input from the community, physicians and the leadership team and lays the groundwork for the next 7-10 years. It includes plans for capital projects, service line expansions and physician growth. It will be the roadmap for St. Edward Mercy to follow into the future and will assist us in making a smooth transition.”
Part of the community plan included the hospital acquiring the River Valley Musculoskeletal Center (RVMC)
In announcing the deal, hospital officials said the move resulted from a “yearlong community master planning process,” through which officials decided to “partner with physicians who are interested in being an integrated part of the Mercy system.” According to the master plan, Arkansas will see a 22% increase in inpatient orthopedic procedures by 2020.
“I think that created a real special musculoskeletal strategy for the River Valley. ... That will benefit this region for years to come,” Johnston said of the RVMC deal.
Johnston said another highlight of his time in Fort Smith was helping to build a physician base rebuild specialties in the Fort Smith area.
“We still have a long way go to, but I think we have a good base,” he said.
The hospital, like many around the country, has also had to cut staff during Johnston’s tenure. One of the largest announced cuts was made April 15, 2009, when 64 full-time jobs were eliminated.
“We’ve all had some tough economic times, and we had our challenges as well,” Johnston said, adding that reducing labor was the hardest part of the job.
Leaving is also going to be hard. Although he is looking forward to the opportunities and amenities of a big city like St. Louis, Johnston said he and his family will miss Fort Smith.
“We’ll enjoy the bigger city, but at the same time, you do miss the size and the community of Fort Smith, where you get to build some really good relationships,” he said.
The Sisters of Mercy Health System is the eighth largest Catholic health care system in the U.S. and serves more than 3 million people annually. Mercy includes 28 hospitals, more than 200 outpatient facilities, 38,000 employees and 1,500 integrated physicians in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.