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Joe Sluka stepping down as St. Charles Health System president and CEO

Joe Sluka, president and CEO of St. Charles Health System.
St. Charles Health System/file
Joe Sluka, president and CEO of St. Charles Health System.

(Update: Adding more comment from board chairman; Oregon Nurses Association, C.O. Providers Network statements)

Dr. Steve Gordon to take on interim role; national search planned for permanent CEO

BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) -- After nearly eight years as president and CEO of St. Charles Health System, the last 2 1/2 dealing with the many ramifications and impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, Joe Sluka announced Tuesday his intention to step down from the role.

“I am so proud of this organization and the more than 4,500 employees who put their hearts into caring for our communities every single day. This is a very difficult decision,” Sluka said in a statement issued by the health system.

“At the same time, after leading through more than two years of a global pandemic and the corresponding recovery, I feel it is time for me to step aside, recharge and provide the opportunity for new operational leaders to guide St. Charles forward,” he added.

Dr. Steve Gordon, an experienced health care executive and former member of the St. Charles Board of Directors, will take on the interim CEO role as Sluka transitions to what the health system called "a strategic advisor position."

The last few years of Sluka’s tenure no doubt have been the roughest, as the COVID-19 impacts led to financial struggles faced by many hospitals. Earlier this year, the health system laid off more than 100 caregivers and eliminated 76 vacant positions.

Weeks later, about 300 St. Charles employees filed for union representation, upset with administrators’ decisions and seeking a greater voice in their workplace and future.

Gordon, a primary care and internal medicine physician by training, has worked as a health care management consultant with Point B, Inc. since 2016. Previously, he served in executive leadership roles for PeaceHealth in Vancouver, Wash., Providence Health and Services in Portland and Salem Health. He is a graduate of Harvard College, Harvard Medical School and Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

“Having spent several years on the St. Charles Board of Directors, I understand the unique role our health system plays in the Central Oregon community. I am energized to build on Joe’s legacy and advance and strengthen St. Charles despite the current challenges the health care industry faces,” Gordon said. “I will continue to work closely with Joe in his strategic advisor role and am grateful that I’ll have his support, insight and ideas moving forward.”

St. Charles Board of Directors Chairman Jamie Orlikoff told NewsChannel 21 in a phone interview Tuesday that COVID’s added challenges on health care executives “has burned out many, many people. We’re usually talking front-line people, but we’ve seen a lot of 1,000-yard stares of CEOs in hospitals around the country.”

He called Sluka a “great leader” who was “gracious enough and honest enough that he had been stressed to the point where it was probably better” for him to leave the stressful position and “recharge -- and better for the health system.”

Stlll, Orlikoff said, “We want to get the benefit of his knowledge – Joe is a really great strategic thinker. By taking the operational pressure off of him … Joe can kind of raise his gaze and think more strategically.” Asked about how long that would be, the board chair added, “I don’t think it’ll be forever, but he’ll be in that role indefinitely.”

Orlkoff also acknowledged the challenge of finding a new permanent CEO in these days when most businesses face staffing challenges" “It’s a job not a lot of people want right now. CEO turnover rates are higher than they’ve ever been right now,” partly due to demographics, “but the pandemic has significantly accelerated this. Colleagues in the search field say they’ve never seen a market like this.”

As for Gordon, who had resigned from the board after several years and recently served as “chief recovery officer” for a time,  Orlkoff said they were lucky that he was willing and enthusiastic about taking the interim CEO position. He said Gordon “doesn’t want to be considered as a candidate for permanent CEO, which gives us breathing room to consider” who they want in that position.

Orlikoff also made clear the board did not force Sluka out: “This was his decision, his call. He’d been kind of deliberating this. He told me he has never quit anything in his life.” But after going on vacation to “step back” and reflect, Sluka decided it was time to step down. Orlikoff noted that Sluka had served “about double the average tenure” of hospital CEOs.

As for COVID-19 and its continuing impacts, Orlikoff said the new subvariants mean “it’s still very tenuous. … We’re not in the same position we were to deal with another wave as we were when omicron hit. We’re not out of the woods – no one is.”

Here's the rest of Tuesday's St. Charles announcement:

During Sluka’s time at the helm, St. Charles has grown into a robust regional health care system, Tuesday's announcement said of Central Oregon's largest private employer.

Some highlights include:

  • Implementation of a Lean management system focused on a culture of continuous improvement
  • Construction of a new patient tower, including state-of-the-art ICU, at St. Charles Bend
  • Transition to the Epic electronic health record platform
  • Expansions and remodels of both St. Charles Madras and St. Charles Prineville campuses
  • Expansion of services in Redmond including robotic surgery
  • Opening of additional outpatient clinics in La Pine and Bend South
  • A long list of patient safety and quality awards for hospitals and clinics throughout the system

“Joe’s leadership through a period of growth for the health system and throughout the past very challenging two years of a global pandemic have been exemplary,” said Jamie Orlikoff, chairman of the St. Charles Board of Directors. “He has been a reassuring and trusted voice to the Central Oregon community and has also been an important advocate for health care resources at the state and national level. On behalf of the entire board, I would like to thank Joe for his service.”

In addition to his role as president and CEO of St. Charles, Sluka also served as chairman of the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems Board of Directors for two years through the height of the pandemic.

“Joe served as OAHHS board chair for the two most challenging years of the pandemic, 2020 and 2021. During that time, he guided the association through uncharted waters, as Oregon’s hospitals and health systems collaborated to take care of patients during surges, to navigate changing regulatory requirements, to vaccinate Oregonians, and to serve as the only door that was always open when Oregonians needed care,” said OAHHS CEO Becky Hultberg. “He has been a leader, a trusted colleague, a friend and mentor to Oregon hospital leaders throughout the state. It is with sadness and our deepest gratitude that we wish him well on his departure from St. Charles Health System.”

The leadership transition will take place this week and the St. Charles Board will begin a national search for a permanent replacement.

About St. Charles Health System

St. Charles Health System, Inc., headquartered in Bend, Ore., owns and operates St. Charles Bend, Madras, Prineville and Redmond. It also owns family care clinics in Bend, La Pine, Madras, Prineville, Redmond and Sisters. St. Charles is a private, not-for-profit Oregon corporation and is the largest employer in Central Oregon with more than 4,500 caregivers. In addition, there are more than 350 active medical staff members and nearly 200 visiting medical staff members who partner with the health system to provide a wide range of care and service to our communities.


Oregon Nurses Association's Statement on St. Charles CEO Retiring
Oregon Nurses Assn. - 07/12/22 2:16 PM

Bend, Ore. - The Oregon Nurses Association (ONA) issued the following statement today upon the retirement announcement of St. Charles Health System President and CEO Joe Sluka. ONA represents nearly 1,200 frontline nurses working at multiple St. Charles Health facilities in Central Oregon. 

“We thank Joe Sluka for his service and wish him well in the next chapter of his life. He led St. Charles during an important period of expansion and change and helped build upon our reputation as an outstanding community hospital and health system. 

We appreciate the universal need among health care workers to refocus and recharge after sacrificing our time, health and safety throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. 

We ask St. Charles’ board of directors to move quickly to incorporate local nurses and allied health care workers into its planned search for our community’s next CEO to ensure experienced voices from the frontlines of health care are represented in this significant decision.”

- Joel Hernandez, ONA Vice President and registered nurse at St. Charles Bend

The Oregon Nurses Association (ONA) is the state’s largest and most influential nursing organization. We are a professional association and labor union which represents more than 15,000 nurses and allied health workers throughout the state. We are a proud state affiliate of AFT and the American Nurses Association. ONA’s mission is to advocate for nursing, quality health care and healthy communities. For more information visit: www.OregonRN.org.


Central Oregon Providers Network on Resignation of St. Charles Health System President and CEO
 
Bend, Ore.—The following is a statement from the Central Oregon Providers Network, which represents 300 St. Charles Medical Center physicians and other advanced-practice providers who have filed for union representation, on the resignation of St. Charles’ President and Chief Executive Officer Joe Sluka:

“The Central Oregon Providers Network will work respectfully with whomever is leading St. Charles Medical Center. It is our fervent wish to have a collaborative relationship that includes the right to unionize and have a voice in patient care.

“St. Charles management has asked the National Labor Relations Board to dismiss COPN’s petition for a secret ballot election. We hope this position will change under a new president and CEO and will give COPN the right to hold this legitimate election.”
 
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Barney Lerten

Barney is the digital content director for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Barney here.

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