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Rice's new CEO digs into challenges

Two months into heading one of Willmar's largest public entities, Rice Memorial Hospital CEO Mike Schramm is turning his attention on the long-term future of the city-owned hospital. The former CEO of Meeker Memorial Hospital in Litchfield, Schramm is taking a proactive approach to the challenges facing the medical industry and says the hospital must be "prepared for what's coming with those changes." Tribune photo by Gary Miller

The neatness of Mike Schramm's desk belies the busy schedule he's had since becoming Rice Memorial Hospital's new chief executive on June 1. Two months into the job, Schramm is still getting acquainted with the people and the issues, but he also has begun turning his attention to larger strategic issues and the future direction of the city-owned hospital.

"There are a lot of issues right now that we know are priorities," he said.

Schramm, 39, was hired for the position this past March after an intensive search and interview process.

A native of South Dakota, he has been in the hospital business for almost two decades, first in his home state, then in Arlington in southern Minnesota. He was the chief executive at Meeker Memorial Hospital in Litchfield from 2002 until taking the position at Rice Hospital.

Schramm now heads one of Willmar's largest public entities, with a $90 million-plus annual budget and more than 800 employees. The Rice organization includes not only the hospital but a long-term care home, an outpatient rehabilitation center and a durable medical equipment retailer.

It's a larger, more complex hospital and medical community than any he has previously worked at.

"Literally my first three to four weeks were almost every day back-to-back meetings," he said. "The weeks are flying by."

Schramm arrives in his office early most mornings, often by 7. Fueled by coffee -- "too much," he confesses -- he generally spends the day in a whirlwind of meetings, e-mails and paperwork.

On this particular day, there's a stack of medical staff appointment letters waiting for his signature.

"I always have a few things to sign," he said.

And his desk isn't always this clean. "It looks better today than it did the last few weeks," he said. "I've got to get a filing system."

He also has three meetings before noon, and he's busy organizing a strategic planning session for the hospital board of directors in late July. There's a household move coming up as well. For the first couple of months Schramm has been commuting the 30 miles between Litchfield and Willmar, but in early August he and his wife, Rayette, and their two school-aged children will move into the house they bought on Eagle Lake.

Schramm joins Rice Hospital at a critical time. Although the hospital has been profitable the past two years, it has had to cut expenses -- including staff layoffs and the elimination of two outpatient chronic disease management programs last year -- to stay in the black. Plans to replace the aging Rice Care Center with a new senior campus have had to be placed on hold.

The health care industry, once thought to be recession-proof, has been hit unexpectedly hard by the downturn in the national economy. Reimbursement continues to be tightened.

Meanwhile, health care providers are braced for what health care reform legislation is likely to bring.

"We need to continue to be proactive and be prepared for what's coming with those changes," Schramm said.

Some of these issues will be tackled as the hospital and its board of directors put together a new strategic plan. The process will help prioritize Rice's goals and how to attain them and fund them, Schramm said.

Improving the hospital's balance sheet almost certainly will be among the goals, he said. "We need to be able to generate a profit which actually goes back to operations," he said.

It'll also be important to figure out which services Rice should provide, which services might be enhanced, and how Rice can foster relationships that support local physicians, Schramm said.

"We obviously can't do everything. We can't do all things for all people," he said. "That's the continual challenge -- meeting community need."

Schramm also puts a priority on quality care, something he believes hospital employees and the medical staff are uniquely able to deliver.

"We've really got great people," he said. "I continue to see dedicated, caring, hard-working and very loyal employees... We've got a very solid medical staff and a very solid medical community."

Dale Hustedt, associate administrator for facility and human resources at Rice Hospital, said Schramm has the advantage of already have a decade's worth of experience in health care.

"He knows the issues in health care and he understands the importance of the relationship between Rice and the medical staff. That goes a long way," said Hustedt, who was the interim administrator before Schramm took over.

Hustedt said it has been a change from previous CEO Lawrence Massa, who led Rice for more than 14 years before leaving last fall to become the new executive director of the Minnesota Hospital Association.

"You've got this new guy and he has different ideas and he's challenging the way we do things here. I think that's healthy," he said. "I think he's going to do a great job. He's come in and taken charge."

Schramm said the learning curve will likely remain high for several months.

"The challenge has been spending the time that's needed to get to know people," he said. "I've had to gather a lot of information on the fly. But I'm not afraid to ask dumb questions."

He said he sees Rice as a promising organization.

"A lot of good things are already in place," he said. "There are a lot of things in the institution that are being done and done in the right way."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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