Dan Bonk starts Jan. 2 at AVH
When Dan Bonk starts his job as the new boss at Aspen Valley Hospital on Jan. 2, it will be the first time he has worked for a public health care facility funded by tax dollars.
Bonk, who lives outside of Milwaukee, Wis., was in town with his wife for the past few days, starting the initial move into their new house — the CEO’s residence on the hospital campus — and meeting with some key hospital administrators.
Throughout his 30 years of experience in the health care industry, Bonk said he hasn’t answered to a board of directors responsible for managing millions of dollars in property tax dollars.
“Now I’m the corporate office I’ve always complained about,” he joked in a recent interview. “I’ve never been the guy who answers to a board.”
In all seriousness, Bonk said he isn’t concerned about the unfamiliar territory, or that he is entering a vocal community that can at times apply strong pressure and scrutiny to the public health care facility.
He said he appreciates that Aspen is an educated community, drawing comparisons to his stint working in Oak Ridge, Tenn., which is home to a renowned national laboratory.
“I would much rather have people question things. … I don’t expect perfect consensus,” Bonk said. “I believe health care is local.”
Throughout his career, Bonk has found himself in many controversial and difficult situations, including closing a hospital, and opening one in a highly competitive environment.
The latter is the 74-bed Summit hospital near Oconomowoc, Wis., which is operated by Aurora Health Care. Bonk has been with Aurora, a nonprofit, since 2003. Aurora runs 15 hospitals in the Milwaukee area, as well as throughout Wisconsin and northern Illinois.
Early in his career, Bonk worked at numerous hospitals as a short-term, fill-in administrator when people got fired.
“I learned a ton from bad people,” he said. “I’ve learned what not to do.”
Bonk’s modus operandi is to get out of the office as much as possible, communicate in person with hospital staff and immerse himself in the community.
His plan of attack when he gets here is to do just that, and begin to understand AVH’s processes, issues and people — all with patient quality in mind.
“Learning where the land mines are and getting up to speed,” Bonk said, defining his initial mission. “I need to learn the history and what’s failed.”
He said he has the background and experience to do the job, and the key to success will be to build political capital and trust among hospital staff and the Aspen community.
He met with interim CEO John Sarpa during this past week, as well as people involved in the Valley Health Alliance, a consortium of large employers in the area who are attempting to address rising costs in health care.
Bonk said he, just like most hospital administrators, has no idea how the health care industry is going to shake out next year under the Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare.”
“2014 is going to be a challenge for health care,” he said, adding that groups in the medical profession are going to have to start working together to agree on unified pricing and a “bundling of payments.”
Bonk also will face pressing issues at AVH, including the need to raise $60 million to fund the final phases of its expansion, as well as reworking some of the contracts the hospital has with doctors and other employees. The hospital also is in a legal dispute with its former fundraising arm — what used to be called Aspen Valley Medical Foundation — over how much money the nonprofit owes AVH.
Bonk said Summit hospital, located outside of Milwaukee, which he had led before taking the AVH job, has 2,500 doctors that work under “just about every arrangement possible.”
Bonk isn’t sure what the best arrangement is, but doctors being directly employed by the hospital alleviates a lot of the pressures they face, he said.
He described a scenario in which a person goes to the doctor, spends 10 minutes with the physician and then the medical provider has to spend 30 minutes doing paperwork for the visit and will get paid less. Fewer doctors are accepting Medicaid and Medicare patients and preventive health is not a focus, he noted.
“I get concerned about access,” Bonk said, adding that the landscape has changed dramatically because doctors are under so much pressure and the economics aren’t penciling out.
The landscape for Bonk and his family —he has a daughter who is a senior in high school and a 15-year-old son — also is about change dramatically.
Bonk plans to live here by himself, while his children finish the school year out in Wisconsin. His daughter, Mackenzie, will go off to college next fall, and his son, Colten, and wife, Carrie, will come out in the spring.
Bonk’s son is a 6-foot, 4-inch basketball player who came to Aspen with his dad during the interview process to check out the high school team. Bonk said on Thursday that he planned to go a game here on Saturday night.
Bonk, who will earn a salary at AVH of $390,000, was recruited by the search firm Witt/Kieffer. AVH hired the firm to find candidates all over the country and Bonk beat out 40 applicants. The CEO position was vacated in May by David Ressler, who took a job at a hospital in Tucson, Ariz.
A Wisconsin native, Bonk got interested in health care at an early age. When he was a teenager he underwent two spinal fusions. The surgeries, which were completed by taking bone fragments from his hip, created a difference in the length of his legs, eventually leading to a total knee replacement. Bonk at that time saw what he liked and didn’t like about how health care is delivered.
“At Aurora, we have labeled every employee a ‘caregiver,’” he said, adding that anyone who comes into contact with a patient — from doctors to cafeteria workers — has an impact on that person’s care. “It’s about patient quality.”