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Local Columbia CEO breaks long-enforced silence

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by Paul Flemming

SBJ Staff

When Michelle Fischer, chief executive officer of Columbia Hospitals in Springfield, convened a meeting of department heads at 8 a.m. July 13, she was joined by Cox President and CEO Larry Wallis and two other Cox executives.

It was, Fischer said, the first time the Cox executives had been in the 3535 S. National building that their hospital had been negotiating to acquire for about seven months.

So secret were negotiations on the deal that will close Aug. 1, she said, that Cox brass had not previously set foot in the building adjacent to Cox's south campus.

Fischer, at the morning's meeting, could come clean with hospital staff and physicians about details of the long-rumored acquisition. Up until that point, Fischer said, she called on the hospital's employees to trust that their interests were being represented in the negotiations.

She had been for months constrained from saying anything other than that exclusive negotiations were under way with another hospital entity in Springfield.

The day started at 7 a.m. with faxes to Columbia's board of trustees and its medical executive, heralding the official announcement of the acquisition. After the 8 o'clock meeting at Columbia, a similar meeting was held with department heads at Cox at 9:30 a.m., preceding an 11 a.m. news conference.

Meetings with employees of Columbia South followed at 1 p.m., with similar meetings at the hospital's northside location at 3 p.m.

The frenetic day capped a year of uncertainty for physicians and staff, since corporate changes with the Nashville-based hospital company signaled its Springfield operations would likely be sold.

"We knew a year ago this month, when Columbia leadership changed hands, that there would be change here," Fischer said. "I made the assumption knowing that full well" local operations would be sold.

Fischer said Springfield's distance from other operations in Columbia's system and a corporate strategy that never tackled managed care, in a local market requiring managed care products, made the hospital here likely to be sold.

Official word that operations here were on the sale block came in October 1997, Fischer said. Notice that exclusive negotiations were under way with a single buyer Ð Cox Ð came about two months later, she said.

In March Cox and Columbia submitted to federal and state regulators notice of the pending acquisition.

When those exclusive negotiations began, it was under the terms of a strict letter of confidentiality, a component that would make it difficult for Fischer to calm growing concerns, she said.

Fischer was not directly involved in the negotiations, but she was aware of progress and provided documentation to both Cox and Columbia officials.

"To sell a hospital is so incredibly layered," Fischer said. "Jeff City alone has 10 areas that had to be notified."

"My main challenge was trying to keep security" of the deal, while calming employees who were out of the loop, she said. Physicians and staff were aware something was going on, but could not be told details.

With the official announcement came assurances from Cox officials that all Columbia employees will have a place in the merged organization among them Fischer, who will continue as an administrator.

"I think it is a good mix. Cox has wonderful intentions. I have absolute confidence that Cox sees a need to protect the individuality that has developed here," Fischer said. "The positives are overwhelming," including the resources of the larger Cox.

After all the imposed secrecy and the attendant problems, one more secret remains. Cox's purchase price was not disclosed, though it will become known through filings of publicly held Columbia.

"It's not only a real estate sale, but also a sale of quality," Fischer said of the figure. "I'm proud of the purchase price. I wish I could tell you."

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