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CEO Of Powerful Partners HealthCare Unexpectedly Opts To Step Down03:08
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Dr. David Torchiana, a cardiologist who since 2015 has been CEO of the powerful Partners HealthCare, the state's largest private employer, is stepping down.

In a statement, Partners said Torchiana, 65, plans to retire effective April 29.

Partners Healthcare chief David Torchiana in a 2017 file photo (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Partners Healthcare chief David Torchiana in a 2017 file photo (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

“I am fortunate to have worked at MGH and Partners for my entire professional life and to have been given the opportunity to lead us forward at the culmination of my career," Torchiana — who is known widely as just "Torch" — said in the statement. "I look forward to retirement and have full confidence in the future of our organization which is filled with talented and dedicated people focused on our important mission to make healthcare better and take exceptional care of the patients that have placed their trust in our hands."

The announcement took some of Torchiana's closest associates at Partners by surprise, even though tensions with the board and hospital leaders have been building for months, according to two sources. Other leaders within Partners were at odds with Torch about the future direction of Partners in three areas: a proposed merger with insurer Harvard Pilgrim; a proposed partnership with the largest hospital network in Rhode Island; and Partners' expansion into Boston's suburbs.

With Harvard Pilgrim, some of Partners' hospital executives worried about repeating losses that reached $104 million in 2016 after Partners first acquired another health insurer, Neighborhood Health Plan. (NHP was financially stable by the end of 2017.) The merger with Harvard Pilgrim has been put on hold.

Sources say Torchiana aggravated executives at Partners' flagship hospitals, Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women's, when he pushed to add Providence-based Lifespan, which includes Rhode Island Hospital, to the Partners network and leadership. That deal fell apart. Partners' proposed acquisition of Care New England, the second-largest hospital network in Rhode Island, is still moving forward.

Partners' plan to add more suburban outpatient clinics has also triggered concern about the possible effect on the network's finances and mission.

Despite these tensions, Torchiana, whose departure was first reported by the Boston Globe, is still widely respected within and outside Partners. Doctors, nurses and administrators say they were sad to learn he plans to retire at the end of April.

Partners board president Scott Sperling said in a statement to employees that Torchiana was a distinguished cardiothoracic surgeon at MGH before he took over its physicians' organization in 2003. He became Partners CEO in March 2015.

"Torch has been a valued leader, and he has led this organization in a thoughtful and effective manner," wrote Sperling. "His leadership in the public policy environment, his Partners 2.0 implementation efforts and the leadership he demonstrated around the acquisition of Mass. Eye and Ear are just a few examples of his efforts that have left this organization in a stronger position."

Sperling said Partners will conduct a national search for Torchiana's successor. By tradition, the post is exchanged between the leaders of Mass. General and the Brigham. Since Torchiana came from MGH, his successor might be Dr. Betsy Nabel, the president of Brigham and Women's. A spokeswoman at the hospital declined to comment on Nabel's behalf.

Sources say there has been some discussion of Nabel and MGH president Dr. Peter Slavin serving as co-CEOs. Partners veterans say there was a similar arrangement in the early days of the hospital network. Slavin has not responded to a request for comment.

Torchiana's departure highlights questions about the challenges of running a major health care system. Sources say some former CEOs focused more on representing Partners on a national stage in debates about Medicare policy or funding from the National Institutes of Health, while Torchiana has been more involved in Partners hospitals and shaping the network. It's not clear if the next CEO will be urged to stick to the big picture.

A new Partners CEO, or co-CEOs, will take over as the newly approved merger of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Lahey Health takes shape and aims to challenge Partners' status, jokingly referred to the 800-pound gorilla of health care in Massachusetts. The new entity, Beth Israel Lahey Health, is projected to have 24 percent of hospital stays in Massachusetts, compared with 27 percent for Partners.

A few Partners employees stress that most of this debate is about the future of the network — and will not affect daily operations at Partners' 12 hospitals.

This segment aired on January 29, 2019.

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Martha Bebinger Twitter Reporter
Martha Bebinger covers health care and other general assignments for WBUR.

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