Block resigns from Johns Hopkins Hospital president to end his tenure in mid-September

August 28, 1996|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

The president of the Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System announced yesterday that he had tendered his resignation to Hopkins trustees and would end his tenure in mid-September. He did not say what his future would hold.

In a letter to administrators, Dr. James A. Block, who has headed the hospital since July 1992, wrote that the announcement was to confirm reports that he would leave the East Baltimore medical complex.

Both in the letter and again in an interview yesterday, Block said that his departure was forced by a restructuring needed to fuse the administration of the hospital with that of the Johns Hopkins University. Under changes made this year, the two institutions, founded as separate corporations, will operate their $1.6 billion medical system under a single executive.

Block, a pediatrician and longtime administrator, acknowledged that he could not fit that bill: The new medical chancellor is expected to be a physician with strong academic credentials, as he or she will oversee both the hospital and the medical center.

"This is a very important next step for Hopkins," Block, 55, said yesterday. "Clearly, given the changes going on in health care, it is imperative that we integrate effectively these two institutions, in terms of their economics and their management."

Block was brought to Baltimore to shore up the hospital's finances as cost-cutting initiatives across the nation threatened income to academic medical centers, which tend to charge more for medical procedures to subsidize their research and teaching efforts.

A forceful and controversial leader, Block's marketplace innovations brought him many plaudits but also the deep distrust of some senior medical faculty members at Hopkins protective of its research mission.

Block "accomplished what we asked him to do -- and more," hospital trustee Chairman George Bunting said in a separate letter to hospital employees yesterday, citing Block's moves in response to changes in the health care market. Bunting said Block would continue as a consultant to trustees while new leaders are named at the medical center.

Under Block, Johns Hopkins Hospital continued its run of first-place ratings by U.S. News & World Report, steadied budgets and even increased its profits. While the hospital accelerated its attempts to attract affluent patients, several physicians also said Block had supported initiatives to address public health issues.

Block fought hard, colleagues said, to ensure the long-range health of the medical complex. His backers consider Block a visionary: They note that he was heavily involved in health care financing reform projects in Rochester, N.Y., before coming to Baltimore.

"He's a very creative guy in terms of having vision about where health care was going," Dr. Solomon H. Snyder, a distinguished professor and director of neuroscience at Hopkins, said of Block. "He could see the managed care issues many years before the rest of the country."

In an interview, Block cited a series of accomplishments achieved during his tenure: planning the $97 million Comprehensive Cancer Center, which will allow researchers and surgeons to collaborate under the same roof; helping to mold 1993 Maryland legislation addressing health care costs for small businesses; boosting the number of contracts with managed care insurers from four to 55; and establishing Hopkins Hospital outposts in the Baltimore and Washington suburbs.

"He was a very significant change agent, who really had a very, very good grasp on marketplace realities," said Ronald R. Peterson, executive vice president of the Johns Hopkins Health System.

Aware that Block was considering resigning, the chairmen of several major departments -- including medicine, surgery, urology and psychiatry -- met with Block earlier this summer to dissuade him.

Yesterday, Block called that show of support from medical faculty members -- who double as the hospital's doctors -- one of his proudest moments at Hopkins.

"There's no greater praise or reward that I could ask for than the respect and collegiality of the leadership of this medical staff," Block said.

But his efforts aimed at signing partnerships with managed care providers also gained him his greatest detractors. Some medical professors were concerned that Block's initiatives represented a retreat from the standard that Hopkins set in research.

When the medical school's two top officials left last winter, some medical faculty rebelled. Bunting, the trustee chairman, felt zTC compelled in January to issue a statement that Block had not been fired -- but his departure has been rumored as imminent ever since.

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