Allegheny Health Network CEO vows to expand amid Pittsburgh health care war
The challenges were many when Cynthia Hundorfean accepted the job as Allegheny Health Network’s CEO in 2016.
For one, the hospital system reported a loss of $17.8 million in the first three months of 2016 and other losses in years prior.
The other challenge was gaining respect in an industry where its leaders are predominantly male.
“I found out pretty early on, as a female wanting to be in a leadership position in health care, a couple of things: You have to know what you’re talking about, maybe even more so than your counterparts. And you have to have a voice — a respectful voice,” said Hundorfean, who took on the job at the region’s second largest hospital network after 34 years at the Cleveland Clinic.
In just three years, Hundorfean has tackled both challenges and, according to Modern Healthcare magazine, she’s done a job worth honoring.
Hundorfean, 61, was recognized in February as one of the country’s Top 25 Women Leaders. She and the other honorees will be acknowledged at a Chicago gala in August.
“I feel very humbled. It was probably one of the biggest things that I’ve felt so honored to be a part of,” Hundorfean said in her office on the 29th floor of Downtown Pittsburgh’s Highmark building. The corner office overlooks the Allegheny River. She jokes she could watch a Pirates game from there — if only she had the time.
Among the tasks she has undertaken: a $1 billion campaign to fund the construction of hospitals, wellness and cancer centers; implementing an electronic health records system and a same-day appointment program; and creating a 24/7 “nurse line,” a free phone service that allows people to talk to nurses about health questions and concerns.
Before she could successfully do any of that, Hundorfean said she needed to gain respect and earn trust in a male-dominated industry. While women comprise 65% of workers in the health care industry, their presence doesn’t extend to the executive suite. Women make up only 30% of executives and 13% of CEOs, according to a 2019 report by consulting firm Oliver Wyman.
But respect and trust were readily available for her, said David Holmberg, president and CEO of Highmark Health — AHN’s parent company.
“She’s one of the best CEOs and leaders that I’ve ever worked with, whether male or female,” Holmberg said of Hundorfean, adding that she has a “quiet confidence” about her.
“She doesn’t need to pontificate or feels the need to speak with no reason. When she speaks up, she’s concise and clear in her message. And because she’s the real deal, she has real credibility when she’s in the room,” he said.
Dr. David Blandino, AHN’s board chairman, agreed. At board meetings, Blandino said she tends to be on the reserved side.
“When she has something to say, though, it’s worth hearing,” he said. “But she’s balanced. She’s not totally extroverted and she’s not totally introverted.”
She said one of her success strategies has been to promote physicians to leadership roles. Over the past two years, AHN has named physicians as presidents of Allegheny General, Forbes and Saint Vincent hospitals. Plans call for a physician to lead Allegheny Valley Hospital in Harrison, where Bill Englert retired as CEO in February.
“(Physicians) needed to have a voice as to how we were going to turn the system around and make it financially and clinically viable,” Hundorfean said.
Hundorfean said a patient-first mentality will guide the hospital’s decision-making in the future as competition between Highmark Health, AHN’s parent company, and UPMC intensifies.
Under a 2014 consent decree, Highmark-insured patients will become out-of-network at most UPMC hospitals on July 1.
“(When I came to Pittsburgh) I think the level of competition was surprising,” she said, adding that it often leaves patients in the middle of a battle for their patronage.
But there is another looming deadline — the end of 2022 — that Hundorfean hopes doesn’t get ugly. If it does, it will involve children in the ongoing divorce between the health networks.
Under the current agreement, Highmark-insured patients remain in-network at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh in Lawrenceville. The agreement expires by the end of 2022, and there has been scant information on whether the agreement will continue or end.
“There’s only one children’s hospital in Pittsburgh,” she said. “So that would be a real shame to have to try to duplicate those kinds of services. It would be very expensive, not great for the patients and, frankly, there’s not enough volume to warrant having two full-scale children’s hospitals.”
Currently, AHN and Highmark have no plans to “do anything other than use the children’s hospital,” she said.
“But you always have to be prepared,” Hundorfean said. She said part of the $1 billion campaign to build new hospitals is ramping up pediatric care.
“The intention is to get pediatricians in the right places. … It’s really to build pediatrics up so they can see our own patients right now. If patients need to be hospitalized, they’re going to the children’s hospital,” she said.
The hospital network and Highmark also are expanding their cancer treatment footprint in Western Pennsylvania. AHN has plans to build up to 10 community cancer centers across the region as part of its partnership with John Hopkins Medicine, a health care system based in Baltimore, Md.
Monroeville’s Forbes Hospital recently began treating patients at its new digs, built for $35 million. There are others like it being developed in Westmoreland, Erie and Beaver counties. Highmark has pledged nearly $300 million to build similar cancer centers through 2020.
The cancer centers are part of the hospital network’s $1 billion campaign to expand, and AHN expects the projects will create about 800 jobs when completed.
Hundorfean said Pittsburghers have yet to realize the quality of AHN’s oncology treatment, noting that UPMC oncology facilities have had several years to build their reputation.
“Our outcomes from our group are so good and so high — it’s just unfortunate that AHN is just a new system and people don’t know how good it is,” she said.
In time, Hundorfean said, people will see it.
For now, her leadership goal is to make sure patients get access to quality care, she said.
“The absolute best patient experience that you could ever receive so that they wouldn’t even think about going someplace else because they’re so well taken care of,” Hundorfean said.
Dillon Carr is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Dillon at 412-871-2325, [email protected] or via Twitter .