Pullin discusses lessons he learned in his first year as Virtua CEO, president

By Anjalee Khemlani
South Jersey | Jan 8, 2019 at 1:39 pm

Dennis Pullin has been the new CEO and president of Virtua Health, South Jersey’s largest health system, for just over a year. The suburban hospital system, previously led by Richard Miller, has always operated quietly and is a financially strong system. So, Pullin spent his first year getting to know the lay of the land and the players in health care and politics in New Jersey.

He spoke with ROI-NJ about his first year as CEO.

ROI-NJ: You’re one full year in to the new job. Let’s talk about where you came from and what you’ve been up to.

Dennis Pullin: I’m learning New Jersey. I spent the first 26 years of my career working in Texas, and then 11 in D.C. and then Baltimore. It’s been interesting. For me, the real difference is that, in Texas, it truly was a state that there was no (certificate of need), there’s a large number of not-for-profits, for-profits, academic medicine and investor-owned health systems. Whereas, in New Jersey, very much like Maryland, it’s predominantly not-for-profit systems. There’s good and bad with that. Because they are not-for-profits, you know that there is a commitment and a focus on community, and that is something I am 100 percent on board with.

ROI: How did you spend Year One?

DP: I spent a lot of time speaking with employees, clinicians, community leaders, politicians — anybody I could talk to that could help better educate me about those things, be it real or perceived, that Virtua has really stood for: our position in the community, how do people view our quality, were we good corporate citizens, were we purposeful? I also met with almost every health system CEO in state. Not all of them, but regionally here. I wanted to know how the community felt about Virtua, and that included our competitors. They were all gracious. In fact, when I first arrived here, they all reached out to me.

So, when you ask me about the health community here, it is one that is highly competitive but yet there are synergies in terms of what we are all trying to do. I didn’t come into an environment where there were some poor-quality organizations that we were all having to bear the pain of them not doing the things and get a lot of dumping of talent and emergency rooms — so I was encouraged.

Virtua is still the largest employer in South Jersey, so it’s important that our employees feel like they have a voice. I am the CEO, the president, the chief communicator, the chief custodian — I work for the people in this organization, and, so, it is important that they feel that I’m out there.

ROI: Why politicians? Historically, the system has operated quietly and hasn’t had the best luck with political fights. Are you aware of that history, and are you trying to change that?

DP: (Politicians) are impactful in terms of policy. And because of the state and because we are a not-for-profit and because we want to be purposeful, I felt it was important to meet with the community leaders and our elected officials such that I could better understand their strategies and some of the things that were important to them. I also wanted to have a relationship such that if we needed to advance our agenda, how we might solicit their support. So, it’s a partnership.

There is no secret that we have not always had the best relationships — but it’s a new day. I was new to Virtua, new to the community, so I think it was only right that I get out and get to know the people. I’ve met with the governor, I’ve met with the Senate president, I’ve met with congressional representatives, the Assembly and county freeholders.

The ask is to make sure things are equitable in terms of resources coming from the state. So that Virtua will always have the opportunity to benefit from resources that might be made available from the state level. We all want to make sure we have an equal opportunity and, sometimes, you have to have those relationships such that your voice can be heard.

ROI: Your predecessor set a tone of building out ambulatory sites and being one of the first to offer telehealth as a health system in the state. How are you changing this strategy, if at all?

DP: One of the things that I had to accept, and we have to focus on and change here at Virtua, is about consumerism. Are we creating a platform where our services are more readily available based on how you, the consumer, want to access services? Is it where, when and how you want it? How do we reinvigorate our digital platform?

We are trying to create an environment in which we are more responsive to the patient. So, in order to do that, we had to really rethink our strategic marketing. Today’s environment, the patient and consumer has far more control in health care than ever before. On one hand, we are becoming more consumer-centric, and I am starting to focus on the social determinants of health and the social services. Those are things that are being added more purposefully to our strategy.

ROI: It seems like everyone is focused on social determinants of health these days. Tell me about why it’s important to you.

DP: The underlying part (of our services) is how do we mitigate the social determinants of health. How do we ensure people have transportation, how do we deal with food insecurities and homelessness? All of those things take precedent over a medication regiment (for patients if they) are hungry or don’t have a place to sleep or don’t have transportation. One of the byproducts, often, of social determinants, is the development of behavioral health and substance abuse issues. We know that one of every four patients have an underlying behavioral health need, so we are going to focus on addressing those.

ROI: You have that mobile farmers market that began under your predecessor. How is that going? Will you continue it?

DP: That has turned out to be, maybe, one of the most successful mobile food truck markets in the country. We’ve supported over 9,000 families, 45,000 pounds of fresh food in the past year. There is a solid return on the investment. That’s what we all should be trying to do. Make this a healthier and safer community. If we are successful in doing those things, then it does impact — we are trying to keep people out of the hospital.

ROI: Let’s talk about this merger that’s being pursued with Lourdes Health. Why have you agreed to revisit this — as I understand it, there were previously talks with them before the Cooper University Health Care deal fell through — considering what has come out about the financial penalties they face in relation to government programs?

DP: I can’t speak to the reasons why Lourdes and Cooper were not able to consummate that deal; our deal is very different, in that this deal only represents Our Lady of Lourdes — the other deal also involved another hospital that did not work with our strategy. We came up with a different model that was acceptable and doable. There is nothing that, in our due diligence, gave us reason to pause or think that we would be taking on any unforeseen debt.

One of the things that is irritating about the narrative about Lourdes is that we are coming back to Camden … we never left Camden.

ROI: Are there plans for Virtua to diversify in new consumer or innovation spaces, or is it only focused on health care services?

DP: We are going to focus on our core competencies. But do I see us going outside that? At the moment, no. Our financial position is that we are an “AA-”-rated organization. We have a healthy balance sheet because of great management, a solid strategy and delivering great services to the community. Adding the component of Lourdes will continue to allow us to do that.

We will continue to visit our operations across the board. We can still grow, and that growth is dependent upon any underserved communities that we need to reinvest in. We’re a very purposeful organization who is committed to the health and well-being of the community which we are fortunate enough to serve.

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Anjalee Khemlani | akhemlani@roi-nj.com | AnjKhem