Price plans to retire

Norman Price is stepping down as Southwest Health System CEO in February after leading the hospital for 35 years.

Norman Price, the longtime CEO of Southwest Mississippi Regional Medical Center who led the hospital through expansions that tripled its size over three decades and helped transform McComb from a railroad town to a medical hub, is ready to hand over the reins.

Price announced this week that he’ll be retiring effective Feb. 1.

Chief Financial Officer Charla Rowley will take his place.

Price said he won’t sever all affiliations with the hospital, however, and will be working a couple of days a week as a consultant.

“I’m going to be more involved in physician recruitment,” he said.  

Asked why he decided to step down now, Price pointed to a number of factors.

“I will have completed my 35th year,” he said.

And at 67, Price noted that he is of retirement age.

There are other considerations, as well, such as the changing nature of healthcare management.  

“The biggest challenge for rural hospitals now and in the future is going to be pure financial,” he said. “There's going to be changes in all types of health care in January because of Medicare.

“That's the reason I feel like the board chose (Rowley) to replace me, because the challenges are going to be 99 percent financial.”

He noted that other Mississippi hospitals, such as Forrest General in Hattiesburg and Singing River in Pascagoula, which are public hospitals like Southwest, also turned to their CFOs when looking to replace chief executives.

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Price was 31 when he came to McComb 35 years ago to lead the hospital after starting his career in administration in Birmingham, Ala.

“I came from a bigger hospital than here,” he said. “I wanted my family to be raised in a smaller town. Birmingham wasn't a good fit for us.”

Price said McComb reminded him of his hometown, Sylacauga, Ala., and it had other parallels to his life in Alabama. Birmingham was being transformed into a medical community after steel mills closed. Around the same time, the railyards that were McComb’s largest employer and served as the foundation for the city’s establishment closed down, forcing the city to reinvent itself.

“I saw a lot of potential here,” he said.

Ben Williams, Bubba Mathis, Maureen Clark, C.E. Jackson, Bob Brewer, J.E. Etheridge and Dr. John Morgan were serving as hospital trustees when they hired Price to replace Tom Logue.

“I’ve got to say, the people that I interviewed with at the time, I owe them a big gratitude,” Price said. “They took a big, big chance.”

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Over the years, Price led the hospital through major changes. Those included the addition of stand-alone heart and cancer hospitals, the Cardiovascular Institute of Mississippi and the Mississippi Cancer Institute, as well as the construction of wings that now house the ambulatory surgery unit that bears his name and the emergency department, in addition to other facilities.

Since taking the job, the hospital has tripled its square footage and grown from 400 employees to 1,200. Southwest Regional represents an $80 million payroll that is the county’s largest for any single enterprise.

Price said growing the hospital hasn’t been easy.

Establishing the heart hospital “was a battle from the very beginning,” he said.

“We had people resisting us as far away as Tupelo,” he said.

Price insisted the facility was needed in the area, which had high rates of heart disease, and he sought — unsuccessfully on more than one occasion — certificates of need from the State Board of Health.

Opponents argued “if they made a exception for us they were going to have to make exceptions across the state,” he said.  

“That took a long, long time — a lot of certificates of need, a lot of denials. And finally we got a state health officer who said that would be a good thing here,” he said.

Price’s inspiration to establish the Mississippi Cancer Institute, which was built a few years earlier, came from taking Pete Nichols to get cancer treatments out of town and seeing how sick he became on the drive back. He thought no one should have to suffer through such misery and add an hour-plus road trip on top of that.

He recalled pitching the idea for the ambulatory surgery unit after doctors he regards as visionaries who “saw into the future” — Foster Lowe, Henry J. Sanders, Tom Jeffcoat, Hank Lewis and Will Austin — noted the potential for the service.

“I was told that I was crazy,” Price said, recalling local officials telling him, “People do not have surgery and go home the same day.”

If there’s anything that stuck in his craw regarding significant changes to the hospital during his tenure there, it’s the multimillion-dollar effort to overhaul the computer system and switch to digital records as part of an unfunded mandate to comply with the Affordable Care Act.

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Price said that by the time he leaves, the hospital should be in good shape.

“As far as the physical plant is concerned, I have made sure that before my retirement date got here that everything has been taken care of,” he said.

The hospital has a new roof, a new facade and reconfigured emergency room.

“The physical plant is in good shape, and when the elevators are replaced, that’ll do it,” he said.

But the challenges it faces will be far from over.

A nationwide nursing shortage has hospitals everywhere clamoring for help.

“It’s cyclical,” he said. “Everyone jumps into it and you have too many, and then everyone jumps out of it and it’s not enough.”

And it’s just not an easy time for public hospitals in Mississippi, which tend to run extremely thin profit margins and several of which have closed their doors throughout the state.

While Price will be focused on recruiting doctors as a consultant, he noted that the hospital is pursuing a partnership for clinical service through the University of Mississippi Medical Center — the largest health care facility and largest employer in the state.

He’s hoping that will address staffing concerns, since getting new doctors to move to and stay in McComb can be challenging.

“It is extremely hard to find these sub-specialities in an area like ours,” he said, adding that doctors in smaller areas tend to have a bigger workload and more on-call hours.

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During a trip back home to Alabama, Price was visiting his ailing mother and the cardiologist tending to her asked where he was from. He told him McComb, “and he said, ‘You have a heart hospital.’ ”

Considering that word had spread that far, Price considers it a testament to his work.

And he thinks of all of the time, money and lives saved from the growth Southwest has had over the years.

Price himself has had the experience of being a patient, recalling some undoubtedly uncomfortable experiences related to a colonoscopy as performed by the people whose paychecks he signed, noting that one of them drew a short straw.

And he recalled his battle with pneumonia, fought right there in the hospital, and telling people on the phone, “ ‘ I’m in the hospital. ... No, I’m a patient.’ ”

Price said he has great empathy for those who come to Southwest for treatment.

“No one wants to be sick,” he said. “No one wants to be injured.”

Being in the hospital is “not a happy time in anyone’s life, except for the birth of a child,” he said.

For Price, retiring isn’t a hard decision, but even if it were, it wouldn’t be anything new.

“I’ve never backed down,” he said. “I think it’s time, and it’s time for younger people.”

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