The man who has led Jackson’s hospital through staff departures and the latest COVID-19 surge is now being asked to continue steering St. John’s Health for up to an additional six months.
St. John’s Health Board of Trustees voted Sept. 30 to extend the contract of interim Chief Executive Officer David Robertson from 12 to 18 months, which would carry him to January 2023. Robertson has been serving in that role since the end of July, when former CEO Will Wagnon resigned.
Board Chair Sue Critzer said the extension was necessary to avoid a gap in leadership while the hospital searches for a permanent replacement — a process that could take up to a year.
In order to allow staff “time to settle” during the leadership transition, Critzer told trustees a new search likely won’t be launched until 2022.
“During the last two months, we’ve been listening to our staff in our community regarding the St. John’s Health leadership position. We hear the passion,” she said. “Leading St. John’s Health is a role that few are equipped for, and even fewer are a right fit for our culture.”
As such, Critzer said the hospital needs to have some preliminary conversations before hiring a search firm.
“We have to do our homework,” she said.
Those internal steps will address concerns from staff and stakeholders and help appoint new search committee members. The committee that selected Wagnon has met to review that process and provide recommendations, Critzer said.
When St. John’s was looking for Paul Beaupre’s replacement in 2020, five individuals led the search. Trustees Critzer, Scott Gibson and Cynthia Hogan were joined by Marsha Lux, the hospital’s vice chief of staff, and St. John’s Health Foundation board member Bob Pisano. Together, the team vetted applicants selected by the national search firm WittKieffer.
In October 2020, they began interviewing candidates over Zoom, with the plan to host finalists in Jackson in November. Those in-person meetings didn’t happen because of COVID-19.
Ultimately, the committee chose Will Wagnon, a hospital administrator who had led for-profit HCA Healthcare institutions in Richmond, Virginia and Las Vegas for nearly two decades.
Wagnon led St. John’s for six months before announcing his sudden resignation at the end of July. The hospital paid him $1 million in severance and did not provide a detailed explanation for his departure. Critzer said at the time that Wagnon resigned with “good cause” as outlined in his contract.
To replace Wagnon, the hospital immediately appointed Robertson interim CEO. In addition to leading rural hospitals across the Midwest, Robertson had also served St. John’s for 3.5 years as an advisor to the Board of Trustees.
Administrators hoped his familiarity with the institution and some of its staff would help ensure a smooth transition while St. John’s continued to meet the elevated need for care during the pandemic.
It’s a difficult time to step into a leadership role: staff are leaving for many of the same reasons healthcare workers across the country are leaving the profession, Jackson’s inaccessible housing market is making it difficult to recruit replacement staff, and COVID-19 continues to fill up hospital beds. But so far, employees and board members are applauding his leadership.
“[Robertson] literally hit the ground running, and we greatly appreciate his efforts,” Critzer said at the Sept. 30 meeting.
So far, Robertson has helped approve a 6% pay raise for St. John’s employees and worked to find them housing solutions. The hospital’s top priorities on that front are renovating the Hitching Post and another hospital-owned property at the corner of King Street and Karns Avenue. St. John’s is also asking medical professionals who live in the valley to apply for vacant positions.
Robertson, who came out of retirement to lead the hospital, told the News&Guide he would be open to another extension as long as he could leave by the summer of 2023.
“If the board asked, and would need me to stay to continue to fill a little bit of a gap, I’m not about to leave St. John’s high and dry,” he said. “But by the same token, I would like to return to my life of retirement in some reasonable period of time.”
Critzer did not say whether the hospital will work again with the same search firm, WittKieffer, that helped select Wagnon.
“It’s vital that the search firm that we work with understands completely the culture of St. John’s,” she told the board. It’s also not clear whether Critzer will lead the search committee, as she did with the former CEO.
Once the hospital chooses a firm, it expects the search to take six to nine months.