Starkman: 10 Questions I Double-Dare Mary Kramer to Ask Beaumont’s John Fox on her Crain’s Detroit Podcast

August 05, 2020, 8:38 PM

The writer, a Los Angeles freelancer, is a former Detroit News business reporter who blogs aStarkman Approved.

By Eric Starkman

John Fox and Mary Kramer

Money can’t buy love, but it can buy editorial space in Crain’s Detroit Business and a podcast with the publication’s group publisher. Beaumont Health’s John Fox is trying to capitalize on the opportunity after failing to con Detroit area journalists of the merits of his plans to merge Michigan’s biggest hospital network into a reputationally inferior Illinois hospital chain called Advocate Aurora. 

Underscoring the failure of Fox’s PR campaign, no reporter has yet to quote any credible person saying merging Beaumont with Chicago-based Advocate Aurora is good for southeastern Michigan residents.

Know why?

It isn’t. The person who will most benefit from the merger is John Fox. He likely will receive a multimillion-dollar payout as he sets off in the Atlanta sunset from where he came.

Fox has resorted to Plan B. Crain’s Detroit has a section called “sponsored content” where companies and executives can buy space and publish self-serving articles the publication’s reporters would never write. Though once extremely controversial, many publications, including Deadline Detroit, let third parties buy space and run stories not subject to journalist scrutiny.

Beaumont last week paid to run a story in Crain’s Detroit entitled “Health systems joining together can create quality advantages,” and touted the benefits of hospital mergers. I’m guessing I’m one of the few who actually read the lame article. Crain’s Detroit clearly marked the article “Sponsored by Beaumont,” so the publication’s sophisticated business readers weren’t fooled by the analysis.

To its credit, Crain’s Detroit remains among the dwindling few publications that don't let advertisers and sponsorship partners influence editorial coverage. Crain’s Detroit has run some very critical articles about Beaumont and Fox. On a recent Zoom call with doctors at Beaumont Royal Oak, Fox mentioned he had issues with Crain’s Detroit. I consider that a badge of honor.

Crain’s Detroit on Thursday is hosting a podcast with John Fox that’s sponsored by Beaumont. The interview will be conducted by group publisher Mary Kramer, putting Crain’s Detroit into dangerous territory. The responsibility of a newspaper’s publisher is to the business side of the operation, and that means treating advertisers and sponsors with kid gloves. 

Although the podcast promotion clearly notes it’s sponsored by Beaumont, being interviewed by someone of Kramer’s prominence gives the interview a patina of legitimacy. If Kramer allows Fox to go unchallenged, she will be doing a great disservice to her editorial staff and her publication’s reputation. Kramer is the former editor of Crain's Detroit.   

Fox is going to peddle his spiel that his sweetheart merger deal will lead to more than $1 billion in investments in Beaumont’s clinical programs, technology, and facilities over the next three years. He will claim the merger will provide a more than 30 percent increase in funding for the Beaumont Research Institute and “substantial funds” will be provided for a new medical school building at Beaumont’s flagship hospital in Royal Oak. 

These investments would all be well and good if they in fact materialize, but there are no guarantees they will. The promised benefits from merging the Illinois-based Advocate hospital network and the Wisconsin-based Aurora hospital system in 2018 haven’t materialized.  Bruce Murphy, a writer with an independent organization called Urban Milwaukee, explains why the Adovate Aurora merger was “bad news” for his community.

Fox also won’t mention the overwhelming evidence that hospital mergers result in dramatically higher patient costs and poorer clinical outcomes. He will also gloss over that in a closely followed U.S. News & World Report “Best Hospitals” survey released last week, Beaumont has 19 adult specialties ranked among the top 50 in the country; Advocate Aurora has two. The reputational divide between Beaumont and Advocate Aurora is bigger than the Grand Canyon. 

Advocate Aurora CEO James Skogsbergh

What Advocate Aurora does offer is outsized pay packages for its CEO and other top executives. Advocate Aurora CEO James Skogsbergh ranked as the eighth-highest-paid CEO of a U.S. nonprofit last year. You can take it to the bank that Fox will be well taken care of if he successfully surrenders Beaumont to Skogsbergh’s control.

So, Mary, the choice is yours. You can allow Fox to wax on with his misleading data and let him make his case with no pushback as he expects. Or, you can ask him critical questions that Beaumont’s 38,000 employees and southeastern Michigan residents are entitled to know the answers to.

Questions like these:

1. We are in the midst of a growing and dangerous pandemic where many experts predict a more acute second wave in the fall that can potentially overwhelm hospitals. How can any hospital executive in good conscience be contemplating a merger in these very uncertain times that invariably will result in disruptive management changes at a critical juncture of the pandemic?

2. Fox has repeatedly maintained in interviews that Beaumont will retain its own CEO, but he’s never once insisted that he intends to remain. Demand that Fox state his intentions after the merger is completed and the length of his current contract. (Fox had a five-year contract that was slated to expire in March.)

3. In a letter to employees this week, Fox said that after the merger Beaumont will “maintain” a “strong, local” board. This claim is comical given that Beaumont’s current board is comprised of some persons with questionable credentials to oversee a major hospital network.

Ask Fox to explain how Martha Quay is suited to evaluate a major hospital network. Quay appears to be an owner of a Bloomfield Hills-based interior design firm with no website or Yelp reviews. Then there’s Geoffrey Hockman, owner of the Bloomfield Sports Shop in Bloomfield Township. And, of course, there is Gerson Cooper, the former president and CEO of Botsford Healthcare who is in his 80s and retired more than a decade ago.

Beaumont’s chair is John Lewis, who is more than qualified to serve on the board of a major regional hospital. He is a former top executive at Comerica, the Detroit headquartered bank that relocated to Dallas in 2007. If Beaumont merges with Advocate Aurora, Lewis will be closely associated with two major institutions that bailed on southeastern Michigan.

4. Beaumont last week sent a questionnaire to doctors asking them for their views on the Advocate  Aurora merger. The deal was announced in mid-June. Why did it take almost two months before doctors were consulted on the merger?

5. In his letter to employees (which I’m happy to share if you want a copy), Fox denied Beaumont is suffering an exodus of talent. That’s not true. Here’s a cheat sheet of names of nationally renowned doctors who have resigned or let colleagues know they plan to leave:

  • Marc Sakwa, former chief of cardiac surgery at Royal Oak
  • Jeffrey Altshuler, also a renowned cardiac surgeon
  • Michael Faulkner, chief of cardiac and critical care anesthesia at Royal Oak
  • George Hanzel, who specializes in replacing heart valves without open heart surgery
  • Alan Koffron, chief of transplant, liver, and pancreatic surgery at Royal Oak
  • Julie Koffron, a very accomplished liver and pancreatic surgeon
  • Peyman Kabolizadeh, head of Beaumont’s Proton Therapy Center, which is ranked among the top in the U.S. for advanced technology, innovative cancer treatment programs, research, and professional and medical staff.

Dozens more Beaumont specialists are known to be negotiating positions elsewhere or being actively recruited, including Kongkrit Chaiyasate, among the most famous plastic surgeons in the world. In short order, it will be easier to list the Beaumont doctors who plan to remain.

6. Beaumont COO Carolyn Wilson recently awarded a low-cost outsourcing firm to staff and oversee the anesthesiology services at most of Beaumont’s hospitals. As of last week, the outsourcer had only signed two anesthesiologists, but a judge temporarily ruled they’d be in violation of their noncompete agreements. What is Beaumont going to do if the outsourcing firm can’t meet its August 20 deadline to staff Beaumont’s southern hospitals with their required 30 anesthesiologists?

FYI: Anesthesiologists are among the most critical for Covid patients, as they are the ones responsible for performing or overseeing challenging intubations at Beaumont hospitals.

7. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Tuesday ordered tougher enforcement of mandatory masks and business capacity limits, signaling she appreciates the pandemic is far from over. Presumably, Fox has briefed Whitmer on his merger plans. Ask Fox for Whitmer’s position on the merger.

8. Beaumont has announced it plans to sell Community EMS, its nonprofit ambulance division, to a for-profit company in Chicago. Ask Fox how it can sell a Michigan nonprofit to a for-profit company out of state and announce the deal near the height of the pandemic.

9. Deadline Detroit revealed this week that Beaumont gets a volume discount if it uses Stryker Corp. implants or J&J staplers. Beaumont says this is all on the up-and-up. Ask Fox where patients can learn about Beaumont’s other preferred vendor relationships.

10. Ask Fox to confirm his age. Crain’s reports him as 68, but this profile lists him at 67 when he was still at Emory five years ago, and public records list him variously at 68 and 70. So much for the transparency Fox pays lip service to. 

Good luck, Mary. Many Beaumont employees and your colleagues will be listening intently Thursday to see if you’ll give Fox a pass or hold his feet to the fire. There’s a Beaumont board meeting Friday and if you expose Beaumont’s emperor with no clothes maybe the somnolent directors will finally awake from their deep sleep.

I can think of no better branding opportunity for a local business publication than having a publisher remembered as the one who drove the final nail into the coffin of a merger deal that a responsible board committed to the residents of Southeast Michigan never would have allowed to get off the ground.

Mary Kramer’s podcast interview with John Fox is scheduled for Thursday from 2-3 p.m. Register and submit questions here

Reach Eric Starkman at Beaumont employees and vendors are encouraged to reach out, with confidentiality assured. 

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