COLUMBIA, SC — George Zara, president and CEO of Providence Hospitals, announced his retirement Friday after guiding the local facilities through six economically challenging years.
“It has been an honor and privilege to work with the thousands of talented employees and health care professionals of Providence Hospitals,” Zara said in a statement. “Every day, they are the hands that provide the highest quality health care in the state. I will always be a strong supporter and friend to this fine institution and its wonderful people.”
Zara, 65, serves on multiple national boards (he’s teaching a course for the American College of Healthcare Executives next week). But if he wants to slow down and take it easy in retirement, he has an ideal hobby. Zara is a master craftsman who for years has made and repaired one-of-a-kind horse saddles.
Zara is credited by the hospital with expanding its services by developing relationships with the South Carolina Heart Center and the Moore Center for Orthopedics. He also led the recent $38 million renovation of Providence Hospital Northeast, which created comprehensive orthopedic services at the facility, the hospital said.
“George has achieved much, and he continues to be a very active and forward-thinking leader,” Michael Kapp, chairman of the board of directors of Providence Hospitals, said in the statement. “In collaboration with the Sisters of Charity Health System, Providence is advancing plans that respond to the changing health care environment and best prepare for a future that includes complex industry-wide challenges.”
Providence, like many hospitals in recent years, suffered bumps along the way. In 2011-2012, Providence laid off 74 workers and left another 30 positions unfilled after employees left.
Yet through a difficult period, Providence maintained one of the most highly regarded cardiac programs in the country. “He has been very supportive of the cardiac program,” said Dr. Edward M. “Mac” Leppard, a long-time cardiac surgeon and former chief of staff at Providence. “He has been able to keep us strong and keep us positioned to stay strong in the future.”
Leppard credited Zara for being physician-friendly and understanding clinical needs.
Thornton Kirby, president and CEO of the S.C. Hospital Association, agreed. Zara, who served on the hospital association board, put physicians in management roles in their specialties, giving them more of a voice in the business side.
“George came here from Colorado (Centura Health and the St. Anthony Hospitals in Denver), which was a much more mature market that already had seen a lot of the reforms coming,” Kirby said. “He’s given us a glimpse of what other hospitals have seen.”
Zara’s last day at Providence will be Feb. 14. While it won’t be hard to find good candidates for the job, the next person in the role faces unique challenges as hospitals adjust to the changes wrought by the Affordable Care Act.
“It’s getting harder and harder,” Kirby said of hospital management. “The pressures are more intense and from more directions.”
During Zara’s tenure, Providence and Palmetto Health blocked the addition of a heart surgery unit to Lexington Medical Center. After years of fighting, the sides settled with Providence shutting down one of its cardiac operating rooms, thus allowing Lexington to open one of its own. The deal, which included a payment by Lexington, ended expansion standoffs among the three hospitals.
“I’m sure Zara accomplished a lot during his term, but I believe the settling of the cardiac care battle with Lexington Medical Center and returning Columbia hospitals to their cardiac détente was an act of true courage,” said Columbia health care economist Lynn Bailey. “Running a hospital in South Carolina today is a grueling job that never ends, and it just wears you down. I expect a lot more hospital CEO retirements in the next two years.”