When Southwest Mississippi Regional Medical Center trustees looked for a replacement for retiring hospital CEO Norman Price the person for the job was right around the corner from Price’s office.
Charla Rowley, who has been the hospital’s chief financial officer for six years, will take over the medical center’s top leadership role in February.
Rowley has a keen understanding of the business of health care management, which is an essential skill considering the fiscal challenges facing Mississippi’s rural hospitals — especially public facilities like Southwest — amid struggles over Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements, reflected across a landscape of shuttered medical centers.
“I've been in health care my whole life,” she said. “My first job was an assistant comptroller for a home health agency in Hattiesburg.”
Rowley, 49, is a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi.
She and her family live in the Morgantown community of Marion County, where her husband is from. She said they plan on moving to McComb once their house sells, but she’s been commuting since she went to work for the hospital.
Rowley came to Southwest from Horne & Associates, a CPA firm that audits hospitals. Price said she was the one who uncovered a massive misuse of funds at Singing River Hospital in Pascagoula that resulted in the loss of $150 million in pensions.
At Horne & Associates, she also helped with the audit at Southwest.
Rowley succeeded Reece Nunnery as CFO and said she has adjusted to the job well.
“I’ve always enjoyed the work here and the people here,” she said. “It’s been a little bit of a challenge but it’s been great.”
She came on board at Southwest as the hospital was converting to digital medical records, requiring a costly overhaul of the computer system.
“When I first got here it was going through a low point. We were changing computer systems and there were a lot of issues,” she said.
Price said some of those issues were nestled in the fact that the hospital wasn’t able to turn a profit based on the expense of the changes and the way it calculated collections.
Other issues, such as reimbursements from government-run and private health plans, are a constant challenge facing hospitals.
“We do have those challenges because of the reimbursement cuts and things like that,” she said.
She noted that Southwest is running at a slight deficit, and Price said profit margins of about 1 to 2% are the norm for public hospitals.
Rowley said she intends to put the hospital back in the black by monitoring costs.
“I would say that within the end of this year we’ll start seeing a good margin,” she said.
The next big project facing hospital administration will involve a partnership with the University of Mississippi Medical Center to provide clinical services in the area.
Price added that the affiliation with UMMC, once approved, should also help reduce costs by giving the hospital an affiliation with access to a larger group purchasing discount.
“It will allow us to have a lot of specialties ... that we just financially haven’t been able to offer,” Rowley said.