Nevada’s Head Medicine Man

He’s no physician, but Lacy L. Thomas can really operate. Fiscally, that is. He beat out a national field of candidates for the chief executive officer position at the financially ailing University Medical Center in Las Vegas. Nevada’s largest public hospital, UMC was in the red for years, at one point losing nearly $4 million a month. A $38 million government bailout in December 2002 gave the 544-bed facility some much-needed assistance. Government officials outsourced work at the hospital last year, freeing up $10.2 million by eliminating jobs, leaving vacant positions unfilled, and closing two of the hospital’s 12 Quick Cares facilities, which were dedicated to primary and urgent care service.

Enter Thomas, a certified public accountant and former hospital director at Chicago’s John H. Stroger Hospital. His job, since taking on the role of CEO last December, is to facilitate internal fiscal restoration as well as rehabilitate UMC’s public persona. “We don’t want [to promote] the perception that this is just a poor folks’ hospital,” says Thomas. “We’re a public hospital and [one of our roles is] to help the poor, but I want us to be competitive in the market and be able to attract new revenue sources, including the paying customer. I want this to be a hospital of first choice, not a last resort.”

Toward that end, Thomas is orchestrating a marketing campaign showcasing UMC’s singular attributes — it has Nevada’s only Level 1 trauma center and only burn care unit. He’s also repairing employee morale.

Also on the mend, says Thomas, are once fractious relationships with physicians, HMOs, and insurance carriers; he’s already landed UMC on a handful of medical coverage plans. Next up: creating better synergy between UMC and the Quick Cares facilities. “Long term, I want to pilot a program where a doctor follows a patient through care, whether it’s outpatient procedures or for other issues. This way, doctors can develop relationships with patients. This will allow us to be competitive with the broader market,” says Thomas.

Despite all the reconstructive work, UMC might still be susceptible to economic palpitations. Las Vegas’ breakneck population growth — upward of 5,000 migrants monthly — produces a steady flow of poor patients, which is the very thing that hindered UMC’s operations initially. A medical malpractice insurance crisis has also had an atrophying effect on the hospital: Doctors have curtailed services, or worse, left Nevada.

As a member of the National Association of Health Service Executives, a nonprofit association of black healthcare executives, Thomas estimates that there are a dozen or so African Americans leading U.S. public hospitals.

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