Starkman: Why I’m Passionate About Covering the Destruction of Beaumont Health

September 13, 2020, 9:10 PM

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

By Eric Starkman

I’ve never been what HR people call a “team player.” I play nicely with most people, but being a team player in corporate America signifies a willingness to toe the company line and ignoring wrongdoing and hypocrisy. I prefer to die standing than to live on my knees.

Beaumont CEO John Fox

I’ve been writing critically about CEO John Fox’s destruction of Beaumont Health since April and have been asked why I care so much about the implosion of Michigan’s biggest hospital network. Although I lived in Michigan in the mid- to late 80s and have considerable family in the Detroit region, I reside in Los Angeles, a city with myriad problems and issues that adversely impact my life. The sky here is currently covered in a greyish hue, the result of raging forest fires.

Some of my Beaumont passion is personal. Michigan has always been my happy place. It’s where I got my green card and I have considerable family in the area, including my eldest sister. Many of the persons I’m fondest of live in Southeastern Michigan, including the founder and editor of this publication.

When I started my PR firm decades ago, my founding client was a Birmingham-based financial services firm whose CFO generously advanced me two months retainer fees without my asking. Covering Beaumont, I’ve befriended dozens of doctors and nurses. Many have privately pleaded with me to keep exposing Beaumont’s decline because they say patient care has been compromised.

My love for Michigan isn’t all that drives me. I regard Beaumont’s collapse as a national story that’s emblematic of all that’s wrong with America. I’m bothered by the disproportion of wealth in America, where the richest one percent have steadily increased their financial holdings at the expense of the 99 percent other Americans. I believe in “healthcare for all,” and Beaumont is an obstacle to that goal.

Attorney General Dana Nessel (Photo: State of Michigan)

I’m also bothered by the trend of politicians gaining national prominence simply because of Twitter fights with Donald Trump. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel fall into this group.

A community’s values are defined by the quality of its schools and hospitals. Beaumont Health, with hospitals in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb Counties, until this year was among the top 50 hospital systems in America with 19 adult specialties ranked among the best in the country. It achieved this greatness because Michigan is a breeding ground for top talent.

A disproportionate number of Beaumont doctors were raised in the Detroit area and attended University of Michigan’s medical school. Those who attended out-of-state medical schools chose to return to Michigan rather than work for even more prestigious hospitals. I know of several Beaumont doctors in nationally ranked specialties with a parent who previously worked at the hospital. As best I can tell, the majority of Beaumont’s nursing staff are Michigan born and bred.

John Fox's home in Atlanta

Where Blame Belongs

Two people are primarily to blame for Beaumont’s collapse: CEO John Fox and his handpicked COO, Carolyn Wilson.

It’s noteworthy that Fox relocated from Atlanta, where he still has a home (in addition to a lakefront property in North Carolina). Wilson went to nursing school in Grand Rapids, where she owns a home and her husband works full time.

Fox was named CEO of Beaumont in March 2015 and it’s curious why he took the position. He was CEO of Emory Healthcare, a decidedly more prestigious job because it’s a bigger institution tied to one of the best U.S. medical schools. Fox’s only known accomplishment at Beaumont is slashing costs to achieve a four-percent profit margin and finding a very questionable merger partner.

Fox and Wilson used the pandemic to accelerate cost-cutting, which precipitated Beaumont’s demise. In recent weeks, a dozen or so prominent surgeons and specialists have resigned or given notice, nearly its entire team of nationally ranked anesthesiologists will be gone by the end of the year, and nurses are leaving in droves.

Cleaning staff has been so radically curtailed that Beaumont’s hospitals are disgustingly filthy, with overflowing trash bins, spilled drinks on the walls and in the stairwells, and dust everywhere. Some of the carpeting at Beaumont Royal Oak is held down with duct tape.

Lakefront view of John Fox's North Carolina property.

A recent survey of 1,500 Beaumont doctors revealed the majority have no confidence in Fox or Wilson. That alone should have forced the firing of the destructive duo, but Fox has an alternative strategy to take himself out of the picture.

He wants to give Beaumont to Chicago-based Advocate Aurora in a transaction that would yield southeastern Michigan no financial benefits and turn Beaumont into the Michigan outpost of a company with big expansion plans. The transaction would likely trigger change-in-control provisions in Fox’s and Wilson’s contracts, netting them millions to haul back to their homes in Atlanta and Grand Rapids. 

It is the responsibility of Attorney General Dana Nessel to protect Michigan’s charitable assets, including hospitals, but she doesn’t appear to take that obligation all that seriously. Nessel prefers to tackle issues that attract the attention of the national media, like getting into Twitter spats with President Trump.

Does Nessel Really Care? 

Weeks after Fox announced his Advocate Aurora giveaway, Nessel issued a news release saying she would “carefully scrutinize” the transaction. Underscoring Nessel’s disinterest, the release revealed that her office wasn’t even certain that the Beaumont not-for-profit ambulance division that Fox wants to unload was truly a not-for-profit. (It is.)

Although in office less than two years, Nessel, 51, has gained national prominence, including a gushing NBC profile. The national media loved that Nessel chastised Trump for not wearing a mask when visiting a Michigan Ford plant and for calling him “a petulant child who refuses to follow the rules” on CNN.

Nessel also garnered national TV appearances criticizing Trump’s proposal to cut funding for schools that don’t reopen this fall. Her fights with Trump haven’t yielded any benefits for Michigan residents, but could land her a plum position in the Biden administration if he gets elected.

Joe Biden and Gretchen Whitmer

Whitmer, who Joe Biden seriously considered as his  running mate, also has been silent about Beaumont’s collapse. The Democrats talk a good game about wealth disparity and their commitment to an affordable national health insurance plan, yet Whitmer appears willing to let Fox reap millions while selling out Beaumont’s 38,000 employees.

National health insurance will never be possible if supposedly “not for profit” hospitals are paying inept CEOs and COOs like Fox and Wilson respectively about $6 million and $2 million annually, and millions more in payouts after they destroy them.

Mark Shaevsky, a prominent Beaumont donor and former board member, last week put Nessel on notice with a passionate five-page letter warning that Beaumont’s collapse has endangered the “health, safety, and welfare of the citizens of Michigan.”

Shaevsky, one of Michigan’s most accomplished attorneys, called on Nessel to demand that Fox, Wilson, and David Wood Jr., Beaumont's chief medical officer, be fired. He also discredited all the arguments Fox has advanced justifying his Beaumont giveaway to Advocate Aurora.

My understanding is that other Beaumont donors want Fox, Wilson, and Wood fired, and are preparing letters to the board making that demand. It’s heartening to see there are still civic leaders promoting and protecting the interests of southeastern Michigan residents in the spirit of the late Max Fisher and Al Taubman. Perhaps their efforts will be the knockout punch.

But if you live in Southeastern Michigan and want Beaumont to remain a community asset and regard its mostly Michigan-born doctors and nurses as heroes for risking their lives working during the pandemic, don’t leave things to chance.

Nessel appears to have big political ambitions, but she’s not going anywhere if she can’t maintain support from Michigan voters. Beaumont ultimately could be saved if a substantial number of Michiganders voice their concern with a message whose meaning Nessel will immediately understand.

To make it easy, I’ve even drafted the letter.

Honorable Dana Nessel
Office of the Attorney General
525 W. Ottawa Street
P.O. Box 30212
Lansing, MI 48909

Dear Attorney General Nessel:

Please accept this letter as notice that if you continue to allow the collapse of Beaumont Health and okay the CEO’s giveaway to Advocate Aurora, I will support and contribute to an effort to recall you because of your egregious indifference to the health and welfare of Michigan residents.

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

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