Phoebe CEO Joel Wernick to retire next year - WALB.com, South Georgia News, Weather, Sports

Phoebe CEO Joel Wernick to retire next year

Joel Wernick in a 2017 interview (Source: WALB) Joel Wernick in a 2017 interview (Source: WALB)
(Source: WALB) (Source: WALB)
ALBANY, GA (WALB) -

Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital has announced that President and CEO Joel Wernick will retire in May 2019.

Wernick has spent three decades leading Phoebe and its many satellite health care facilities.

Under Wernick's control, Phoebe Putney expanded greatly, not so much with additional beds at its primary hospital, but by buying other facilities.

Phoebe Putney issued this statement Thursday morning-

Search Begins for Phoebe’s Next CEO as Joel Wernick Announces Retirement

Albany, Ga. – After a stellar 30-year career at Phoebe during which he oversaw incredible growth of the organization, Phoebe Putney Health System (PPHS) President & CEO Joel Wernick announced he will retire next year.  “Joel has been an incredible asset to Phoebe and to our entire region of the state for three decades,” said PPHS Board Chairman Lem Griffin.  “His years of dedicated experience will be missed, but we plan to conduct a thorough national search to identify a person best-suited to lead Phoebe into the future.”

Mr. Wernick is the longest currently serving health system CEO in Georgia and likely one of the longest-tenured in the country.  Two years ago, Mr. Wernick agreed to a 3-year service agreement extension, which ends May 2019 at his standard retirement age of 65. Mr. Wernick agreed to officially notify the board of his plans with regard to retirement at least one year before the end of the contract.  Formal notification of Mr. Wernick’s intent to retire was given to the chair earlier this year and to the full Health System Board last week.  A leadership succession process has been initiated and will seek to identify qualified candidates for board consideration.

“Joel will work with us to make the transition to new leadership as seamless as possible,” Griffin said.  “If it takes us longer than 12 months to get the right person in place, Joel has graciously agreed to stay on board as long as needed.  If we are able to identify a candidate sooner, Joel will help in that transition as well.  We will work together to do what is best for our patients, our employees and our entire organization,” Griffin added.

Mr. Wernick came to Phoebe as President & CEO in 1988 from Baptist Hospital in Pensacola, Florida.  During his tenure, he implemented an overall strategy to increase access to quality primary, specialty and inpatient care to people throughout southwest Georgia.  That strategy has resulted in tremendous growth of the physician and advanced practice provider community in our region.  It included the formation of the Phoebe Physician Group, Phoebe Family Medicine Residency and partnerships with the Medical College of Georgia and University of Georgia College of Pharmacy.

“I am proud to be part of the teamwork needed over the years to grow our medical community and to provide complex, comprehensive healthcare southwest Georgians used to have to travel far from home to receive,” Wernick said.  “It means so much to patients and their families – and to me as well – to know folks stay right here in our part of the state to get care that will improve and often save their lives.  In many cases, those services would not exist here without Phoebe.”

Over the last 25 plus years, Phoebe employment has grown by over 3000 Phoebe Family members, making it the largest employer in southwest Georgia and an essential engine driving  the region’s economy.  The health system expanded to include Phoebe Sumter Medical Center, Phoebe Worth Medical Center, more than 15 primary and urgent care clinics and nearly 30 specialty care clinics in counties throughout southwest Georgia.  “While we have built many green-roofed care facilities, I like to remind us all -- buildings don’t take care of people, people take care of people.  And I am humbled every day to be associated with the compassion and dedication the members of the Phoebe Family show to those we serve,” Wernick said.

At a time when many Georgia hospitals are faced with closure or significant service retrenchment, Phoebe has maintained strong financial fundamentals.  This board-driven fiscal discipline has enabled continued growth and clinical innovation.  “For more than 100 years, this community has had an uninterrupted stream of dedicated, unpaid servant leaders providing fiduciary oversight and assuring Phoebe provides the healthcare services citizens of southwest Georgia deserve and expect,” Wernick said.  “Phoebe’s governance excellence is what attracted me to Albany.  It is what has sustained me during a long tenure, and it is a legacy that will live long after I’m gone.”

Mr. Griffin has appointed a Search Committee which has already started the search process.  The committee expects numerous highly-qualified internal and external candidates to apply for the position.  Over the coming months, the committee will closely evaluate all applicants with the assistance of a nationally-recognized healthcare executive search consulting firm before presenting several finalists to the full PPHS Board for consideration.

In 1990, Phoebe Putney restructured to a health system that allowed the hospital to expand services beyond Dougherty County. The health system now includes Phoebe Sumter Hospital in Americus, Phoebe Worth in Sylvester, Southwest Regional Medical Center in Cuthbert, and there was a lease agreement with Dorminy Medical Center in Fitzgerald.

It also has several walk-in clinics.

In 2010, Wernick helped engineer a $195 million deal to buy Palmyra Medical Center, then owned by the nation's largest hospital operator, Hospital Corporation of America, HCA. The agreement ended fierce competition between the two, including a lawsuit over whether Palmyra could start delivering babies, which never came to pass.

As part of a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission in 2013, Phoebe Putney and the Hospital Authority of Albany and Dougherty Co. have agreed that for the next ten years, they would not acquire, without prior notification to the FTC, a General Acute Care Hospital, an inpatient or outpatient clinic or facility or a physician group practice of five or more physicians within the six-county region the FTC asserted was relevant (Dougherty, Terrell, Lee, Worth, Baker, and Mitchell Counties).  

Phoebe Putney and the Authority also agreed that for the next five years, they would not file any objections with the Georgia Department of Community Health to the issuance of a Certificate of Need for a new general acute care hospital in the same six-county region.

Phoebe and the Authority are not restricted from objecting to CON applications for other projects but have agreed to provide a copy of any such objection to the FTC. Lastly, Phoebe Putney agreed to provide annual reports of its compliance with these provisions, for ten years.

Phoebe Putney Hospital has made national news with on-going feuds with some of its employees, especially with the 'Phoebe Factoids' that were faxed to many area companies a decade and a half ago.

Some in the Albany healthcare field have spoken out over several years about their differences with Phoebe's practices and tactics under Wernick, which they saw as heavy-handed.

The search for a replacement

After Wernick's announcement, Phoebe Board members said he will leave behind a much bigger, and better-equipped health system.  

"Mainly due to his vision, his imagination, and his resourcefulness to get things done," said Dr. John Culbreath, a Phoebe Board member.

Culbreath said the search committee will hire an executive search consulting firm to find a candidate with strong healthcare financial fundamentals.

"To deal with the challenges of having enough money and other resources in the face of ever-changing landscapes," explained Culbreath. "Both at the state level and national level."

Culbreath said the controversy of Dougherty County suing the state to stop the new Lee County Hospital had nothing to do with Wernick's decision to retire.

"So the choice is completely his," said Culbreath. "The board would much rather have him stay on till he is 70 or 75. But that would not be fair to him."

The Phoebe Board chairman said Wernick will stay on if it takes longer than 12 months to find the new CEO.

Culbreath said the search committee, made up of seven or eight people, will present several finalists to the full Phoebe Health Systems Board for them to select the best candidate. 

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