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BMC chief will retire as contract ends in ’10 (MS)

Elaine Ullian, who transformed Boston Medical Center into a hugely successful teaching hospital, announced yesterday that she will retire, amid what could be the hospital’s worst financial crisis in years.

Her decision to leave in January is not related to the current troubles at the hospital – the state’s largest provider of medical care to the poor – Ullian said in an interview.

Earlier this month, Boston Medical Center sued Massachusetts officials, accusing them of illegally cutting payments for treating thousands of poor patients and plunging the hospital into fiscal uncertainty. The hospital estimates that it will lose $175 million in the fiscal year starting Oct. 1 and $38 million by the end of this fiscal year – its first loss in five years.

Ullian said she had intended all along to retire when she turns 62. Her five-year contract expires on Jan. 3, her 62d birthday. Though the hospital faces unprecedented challenges, Ullian, who works punishing hours, said she could not break a promise to her family, and particularly to her husband of 35 years, that she would retire next year.

As the crisis with the state unfolded this summer, Ullian said she did not have second thoughts about retiring because she has “an incredibly talented team. The hospital is not Elaine Ullian,’’ she said. “It’s been here 160 years. It’s been through two world wars. This hospital will certainly survive all of us. This was very much a personal decision I made years ago.’’

Still, many people in Boston’s healthcare community did not know about her plan and were surprised and dismayed about the news. “It’s bad to lose a recognized leader in the delivery of care to the poor, when delivery of care to the poor is under attack,’’ said Bill Walczak, chief executive of Codman Square Health Center in Dorchester.

Board chairman Edmond English, chief executive of Bob’s Discount Furniture, said trustees and Ullian decided to announce her retirement now, because the board needed to begin a search for a successor. The board has hired Korn/Ferry International’s Boston office to recruit the next chief executive. “It was always her intent to retire at age 62,’’ English said.

“Elaine is BMC. We will miss her terribly, but we have to move on as an institution. There are a lot of changes going on in healthcare right now. It’s an opportunity for us to take a look at the best and brightest from around the country.’’

Mayor Thomas M. Menino recruited Ullian to run the hospital before it was created by the merger of Boston City Hospital and Boston University Medical Center Hospital in 1996 – the nation’s first merger of a public hospital and a private academic medical center and one that many predicted would fail.

After an initial rough few years, she was able to lead the hospital to financial success.

Menino said Ullian called him last night to tell him she would retire in January. “She’s given stability to the hospital and great leadership,’’ he said in an interview.

But the hospital’s fortunes have shifted dramatically in the past year or so: As part of the state’s mandatory health insurance law, special subsidies it paid Boston Medical Center for treating poor patients were phased out; community hospital leaders are resentful that Boston Medical Center has won so much state funding in past years while they have struggled; and the hospital’s support in the Legislature has waned, creating a new landscape for Ullian, who has had tremendous success garnering support for the institution among lawmakers.

Ullian would not comment on whether the hospital and the state have been negotiating about Boston Medical Center’s funding since the hospital filed the lawsuit.

She gave no indication she was letting up on the hospital’s bid for better payments for Medicaid, uninsured, and newly-insured patients. “My shoulder is to the wheel. I am up for whatever challenges there are,’’ she said.

English said the board has not made decisions about budget cuts at the hospital next year.

Ullian, who lives in Brookline, has two adult children. Aside from spending more time with her family, she said she plans to get more deeply involved as a board member for three local companies, ThermoFisher Scientific, Vertex Pharmaceuticals, and Hologic.

Liz Kowalczyk can be reached at