News & Events

Brigham executive to lead Boston Medical

Health veteran taking over financially troubled facility

By Robert Weisman, Globe Staff  |  January 6, 2010

After searching nationwide for a new leader, Boston Medical Center reached into the city’s Longwood Medical Area yesterday and tapped a high-ranking executive from Brigham and Women’s Hospital to become its next president and chief executive.

Kate Walsh, who has been executive vice president and chief operating officer at the Brigham for the past five years, will take over Boston Medical’s top job March 1.

She succeeds Elaine Ullian, who will step down Jan. 29 after running the Boston University-affiliated teaching hospital for 14 years.

The appointment was approved yesterday in a unanimous vote by Boston Medical’s board of trustees, after a search that drew candidates from across the United States.

Walsh, a 53-year-old Brookline native, said she is excited by the chance to run a 626-bed academic medical center with a mandate to treat Boston’s poorest residents. But she conceded the tough economic climate, as well as uncertainty over the federal government’s push to overhaul the health care industry, will present challenges.

“It’s the mission that drove me most directly to the position,’’ Walsh said. “The need for health care is the great equalizer. The opportunity to lead an organization where people can come to get better is a great honor and privilege . . . This will be a difficult job. It’s very important that this institution is able to provide care to its patients.’’

Boston Medical Center, which has more than 6,000 full- and part-time workers, was created through the 1996 merger of Boston City Hospital and University Hospital. But the medical center has been grappling with a host of financial pressures that have intensified over the past year.

While it has yet to file audited financial results for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, Boston Medical projected it would lose $38 million, its first loss in five years. It also estimated it would post a $134 million loss for its current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1.

The state government has slashed reimbursements for hospitals that treat poor residents. That has led to revenue losses of $12 million a month for the center, which sued the state in an effort to boost reimbursements. The suit is still pending.

Walsh said the financial stability of the center will be a top priority. She also said she will look for ways to reduce the cost of providing care, “just like every CEO at every hospital in the country,’’ while continuing to pursue research.

Because the state’s landmark 2006 health care law has broadened access to medical insurance, Walsh said, “I think Boston Medical Center and Massachusetts are very well positioned to lead the country in health care reform. We started the health care reform movement here in Massachusetts.’’

The decision to hire Walsh drew praise from leaders in the city’s medical community.

“I think it’s a superb choice,’’ said Paul F. Levy, president of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, who has worked with Walsh in a consortium of hospitals and educational institutions in the Longwood Medical Area. “She has very good community and political instincts, which is important for that job.’’

Mike Fadel, executive vice president of Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union in Boston, which represents about 2,200 nurses, technicians, and service workers at Boston Medical, said the choice of a local candidate is a positive development.

“She understands the local hospital landscape,’’ Fadel said. “Clearly, the number one challenge is to be able to effectively address the financing and reimbursement crisis. There’s widespread recognition of the scope of the problem, and now attention must be paid to it. This is the state’s largest safety net hospital. It simply cannot fail.’’

An outsider would have faced “a steep learning curve,’’ said health care consultant Ellen Lutch Bender, president of Bender Strategies in Boston. “It’s a sterling appointment,’’ she added. “It was important that BMC recruited someone who understood our community in these highly charged times.’’

Walsh, who had oversight for construction of the Shapiro Cardiovascular Center during her years at the Brigham, previously served as chief operating officer for Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research in Cambridge. She has been involved in public health since she won a grant to work at the Brookside Health Center in Jamaica Plain during the summer of her sophomore year at Yale University.

Ted English, who chairs the Boston Medical Center board and headed its search committee, said in a statement that Walsh is “the best candidate to emerge from an extremely strong field of candidates from every region of the country.’’

He declined to specify her salary.

The center paid Ullian about $3.5 million in deferred compensation on top of $1.3 million in salary and benefits for the 2008 fiscal year, according to a recent state regulatory filing.

Chief financial officer Ronald Bartlett will be acting chief executive from the time Ullian departs until Walsh arrives.

Robert Weisman can be reached at