UAB Health System CEO: ‘It really was that bleak.’

 1533027249 
1618386378

UAB Health System CEO Will Ferniany spoke at the ribbon cutting for the UAB Proton Therapy Center on Jan. 13, 2020.

University of Alabama at Birmingham

UAB Health System CEO Will Ferniany didn’t fully grasp what the coronavirus pandemic would mean when the first cases appeared.

“I was thinking it was going to be more like Ebola or SARS,” Ferniany said. “We were prepared for something, but not nearly to the extent this was. I don’t think anybody was prepared to the extent this was.”

Within weeks, hospitals became overwhelmed overseas, cases spread across the United States and Ferniany was faced with arguably the biggest test of his more than 45-year health care career. That career will soon come to an end.

Ferniany announced recently he would retire as CEO at the end of 2021. The University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine Dean Dr. Selwyn Vickers will succeed Ferniany and continue to lead the school.

Pandemic Pressures

UAB Hospital saw its first burst of COVID-19 patients in March 2020. The list of unknowns grew quickly. Could the health system find enough supplies and protective equipment? Would staff burn out? How would they handle remote work?

After the state went under a lockdown and UAB canceled or postponed nonessential procedures, officials estimated the health system would lose $70 million a month.

“It really was that bleak,” Ferniany said.

He praised Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Mark Wilson, Birmingham city leaders and Gov. Kay Ivey for putting face mask orders in place, a move he said saved lives. He also complimented the doctors and nurses, suppliers, university officials and others for their performance during the pandemic.

The health system is on solid financial footing now, according to Ferniany. Staff burnout is still an issue, but the pandemic will have more lasting effects. He estimated from now on, up to 1,500 employees will primarily work from home. Telemedicine went from having virtually no presence to spiking during the pandemic. It now represents about 30% of outpatient visits.

“We’ll never be the same organization and in many ways we’ll be a better organization,” Ferniany said

The Work from the Corner Office

In one way, Ferniany’s already experienced turmoil at UAB starting as CEO in 2008 when the Great Recession caused economic hardship and many patients to lose health insurance. In the beginning, Ferniany focused on shepherding a strategic plan that would lead the health system and the medical school to work more closely together. Before that, the various health-related operations at UAB acted as islands.

“The more aligned we are, the better we will be,” Ferniany said.

The health system grew from five to 11 hospitals during his tenure. UAB also now manages four more rural hospitals.

One common criticism of health care in general, which Ferniany agreed with, is the ever-increasing costs. He called it “unsustainable” and said there’s little a hospital administrator can do to cut costs. He said Congress needs to address the issue and do so in the next five to seven years.

“I worry that we have such a dysfunctional federal government that they will not act,” Ferniany said.

He likened the situation to one in which it’s better to tear down and rebuild a house instead of remodeling. But he fears a lack of political consensus about health care in the U.S. will result in price controls.

“Price control never works,” Ferniany said.

He did not support a single-payer system, but something in that direction.

Pickles on the Side

An overlooked fact about Ferniany is that he and his wife invented Wickles Pickles, which can be found in grocery stores across the country. They took a recipe from a friend of his wife’s siblings and combined it with one from her great aunt. They gave away the pickles as hostess gifts and the items proved popular. While working at the University of Pennsylvania, a friend suggested they commercialize them.

The “Wickedly Delicious Pickle” was born.

But Ferniany’s wife did not want to become “the pickle lady” and Ferniany liked his work in health care. So they turned over the business to her cousins to mass produce the food.

“The rest is history,” Ferniany said.

UAB holds WBHM’s broadcast license. 

 

You’re Right, It Has Been Raining More Than Usual This Summer In Birmingham

Rainfall was higher than normal this summer across much of Central Alabama.

Gulf State Schools Had Mask Mandates Last Fall. That Isn’t The Case This Year.

The coronavirus pandemic’s fourth wave has not changed state-wide back-to-school plans in the Gulf South, where cases are rising and mask use is voluntary.

ACLU Of Alabama’s Director Looks To The ‘Next Iteration Of The Civil Rights Movement’

JaTaune Bosby, the first Black woman to lead the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, took the job during a tumultuous time in the country with the pandemic and last year’s summer of racial reckoning.

Jefferson County Commissioners Look For Ways To Stop Illegal Dumping

The amount of illegal dumping of trash in Jefferson County is "concerning," says county commissioners. They say more needs to be done to address the problem, which could include more stringent penalties.

More Extreme Weather In Gulf States Means More Power Outages. Are Energy Companies Ready For It?

The 2021 Atlantic hurricane season is likely to be as active as last year’s, when thousands in the Gulf South were without power for weeks after hurricanes Laura, Zeta, Cristobal and Delta. With that increased activity comes a bigger threat to the region’s power grid. How prepared are Gulf States’ energy companies for the threat to come?

Alabama Sees ‘Unprecedented’ Surge In COVID-19 Hospitalizations

Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said the increase is linked to the more contagious Delta variant, coupled with Alabama’s low vaccination rate.

More Front Page Coverage