Atkinson leaves legacy of growth at WakeMed

September 27, 2013 

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Bill Atkinson, CEO of WakeMed

TRAVIS LONG — tlong@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

In the shifting and expanding world of health care and hospitals, Bill Atkinson was a survivor. He served 10 years as CEO of Raleigh’s fast-growing WakeMed by staying at the front of changes, but this week those changes caught up to him. On Thursday, the hospital’s board of directors said Atkinson is leaving the hospital system because of “differences in the future direction of the organization.”

The corporate-speak of CEO departures reveals little about the reasons, but in Atkinson’s case headlines had already signaled that his tenure was getting rocky. He butted heads with UNC Health Systems over whether UNC’s Rex Hospital in Raleigh was carrying its fair share of indigent care, then he led an unsuccessful effort to buy Rex Hospital. There was a setback when a group of heart doctors left WakeMed to join Rex. There were charges that WakeMed overbilled Medicare, resulting in a settlement and a scolding from a federal judge. Finally, there were signs of financial troubles when the hospital reported a $15 million operating loss in the quarter that ended June 30 and last month announced plans to lay off more than 100 workers.

No doubt there were more, unpublicized reasons the board thought it was time for Atkinson to go. He was known for his strong personality. But whatever the reasons – public or private – Atkinson’s departure marks the end of a chapter of remarkable growth and progress at WakeMed. Atkinson played a big role and deserves credit for that evolution.

Running a hospital is hard enough. Running a hospital with public roots and enduring obligations to serve Wake County’s poor is harder still. Atkinson not only managed a hospital with 8,500 employees and 870 beds, he also drove growth in its services and quality. WakeMed became one of the state’s best trauma centers and a leader in heart care. It also expanded its facilities throughout Wake County and into Johnston County.

Atkinson, a hard-charging executive for whom sleep seemed a luxury, came to WakeMed in 2003 after improving and expanding the New Hanover Health Care Network in Wilmington. He continued at the same pace with larger results in Raleigh. But the ballooning, ever-more-costly realm of hospitals and health care is now reaching it limits. The emphasis has shifted to containing costs, and slowing down was not Atkinson’s forte. It’s no coincidence that his tenure will officially end Oct. 1, the first day that people can enroll for health insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

WakeMed will now go on in a new direction under a new leader. How it will fare and whether it can remain independent in this environment are unknown. What is known is that Bill Atkinson leaves WakeMed better than he found it. That’s to his credit and the region’s benefit.

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