One of Dr. Brian Erling’s first jobs as the interim leader of Penrose- St. Francis Health Services: Lay off dozens of his employees.
Now, with his “interim” tag gone and the hospital system on a more stable financial footing, Erling said he sees a future that includes new campuses across the Pikes Peak region, and an end to those staff cuts.
In his first sit-down interview since assuming Penrose-St. Francis’ top post without the interim tag, Erling framed the hospital system as stable and primed for expansion in the years ahead, while gearing up to expand its network of primary care and family doctors.
He became president and CEO at a time of flux for the Catholic-based, nonprofit health system. A merger between its parent organization, Catholic Health Initiatives, and Dignity Health brought deep financial uncertainty, stalling some expansion plans. Erling laid off 42 people, and the hospital system’s staff of about 3,000 people is down about 100 from its high.
He said one thing is certain: No more layoffs are expected for the foreseeable future.
Left unclear, however, is the future of several previously announced expansion plans, including the planned construction of a $550 million hospital reaching possibly 10 stories high at Fillmore Street and Centennial Boulevard on Colorado Springs’ west side.
In his new office late last week, Erling said he has “a mostly baked plan” for the health system, including an “acute care campus” on that site with inpatient beds. He also said the hospital system is doing its “due diligence” to acquire additional land “farther north” in the Pikes Peak region, and that it is studying how to expand and create campuses.
Erling had previously been chief clinical officer of Centura Health, the Centennial-based corporate parent of Penrose-St. Francis, a role he gave up last month when he was named the permanent CEO of the Colorado Springs-based system. Along with the soon-to-be-unveiled expansion plans, he also is overseeing the completion of a $102 million expansion of St. Francis Medical Center. Even that campus likely will need another addition in coming years, he said.
Erling has spent more than 20 years as a senior hospital executive with Centura, Em-Care Alliance Group, American Medical Response and Apex Emergency Group. He has a medical degree from Johns Hopkins University and a master’s degree in business administration from University of Colorado at Denver.
Here are other excerpts of that interview, edited for brevity:
What is your plan moving forward for Penrose- St. Francis?
We’ve been working the entire summer diligently on a revised strategic plan, which then that strategic plan feeds our master facility plan. And we have a mostly baked plan. It’s just one that still requires a lot of details to be worked through, as well as it still requires approval from our board. So to speak in too much detail about that would be inappropriate right now.
What I will commit to is this community is growing significantly, and our plan is to do the same. There is a significant need that is being unmet … I know our plan will have a commitment to bring significant primary care and access to this community. The Colorado Springs community is underserved when it comes to primary care, and one of our commitments has always been around delivering the highest value care — so outcomes, quality, service, convenience, cost. So delivering care at the right place, at the right price point, and that’s primary care.
And we’re very invested in prevention, so you’ll see that as a piece of the plan for sure, but as far as what we do with this property, what we do with the hill property, what we do with St. Francis and additional properties, all that will come out and be pretty clear over the next six to eight weeks.
Are you talking about recruiting new family doctors, or acquiring existing primary care practices?
The market needs new. We don’t have a preference to employ versus to partner. My commitment is to provide more primary care to the community, and if I can help an independent group and add additional providers and help them create a more cost-effective by partnering, I’m all in for doing that. But to get the numbers that this market needs, I guarantee we’re going to have to recruit people into the market as well.
You’re talking a lot about growth. The price tag for the third campus was $550 million. Are your parent organizations giving you the same amount of money to work with as previously promised?
There’s no change in commitment to the market.
How is the merger going between parent organizations Catholic Health Initiatives and Dignity Health? Are you seeing effects here in Colorado Springs?
I’m not privy to all the information, but my understanding is it’s absolutely on schedule, without any issues, is what’s being communicated to me … The only effect that it could have is capital, and we have a clear message that it will not affect capital right now. The commitment is to significantly invest in the market.
How many additional primary care doctors does this area need?
The projections would suggest that we are more than 100 providers short in the market. The likely output from the strategic plan would be to recruit at least 50 more into our system.
Will part of expansion be to create freestanding emergency rooms?
Not right now. What is on (the strategic plan) though is a multitude of urgent cares. We really believe in our plan is a multitude of urgent cares. This market has four hospital-based emergency departments that are pretty well spread around the city to provide emergency care. But we do want to create those access points that are more convenient, where population density and growth is where they can come in and get an urgent care co-pay. … If we did feel like there was a need for a freestanding ED — that’s the key point there, a need — then we would do it in a way that provides an urgent care option.
Are you going to move to the Pikes Peak region?
My son is finishing eighth grade, so we’re committed to making that move in the spring. But I’m going to rent something down here (for the time being). I may end up being kind of like a millennial downtown. But we’re absolutely committed. I can’t get my wife off the realtor.com app. I think that’s important — not only because I think it’s important for this position, but it’s one of the things that drew me down here. This is a fantastic community.
Gazette reporter Wayne Heilman contributed to this report.