Q and A with Ed Roberson, Christ Community Health Services CEO 

New CEO discusses mass resignation, deficits, and Title X funding.

Christ Community Health Services (CCHS), which focuses on the "underserved" populations of Memphis and Shelby County, will be celebrating its 20th anniversary next year. CCHS maintains seven brick-and-mortar medical clinics, a mobile unit, and a dental clinic. On the strength of a new federal grant of $407,000 and a donor campaign, CCHS is planning some major expansion.

CCHS has also been the beneficiary since 2011 of a federal contract to provide Title X medical services to women. The Title X contract had traditionally been awarded to Planned Parenthood but was rebid as a result of new policies pushed by Tennessee's Republican-dominated state government. Amid a good deal of controversy, the CCHS contract — amounting to $400,000 annually — was approved by Shelby County government.

click to enlarge Ed Roberson - JACKSON BAKER
  • Jackson Baker
  • Ed Roberson

Roberson, a veteran accountant and retired business executive, was recruited earlier this year by the CCHS board to serve as interim CEO after some 30 physicians and the then-CEO, Dr. Rick Donlon, announced their intentions to resign in protest of unspecified "ill-advised and poorly executed decisions" by the organization's board. Roberson's appointment was made official and permanent on August 28th. — Jackson Baker

Flyer: What was the mass resignation all about, and what were the "ill-advised" decisions?

Ed Roberson: This was all before I came on. We were cutting expenses; indeed, we had already cut them at the time the doctors announced their departure. There had been cuts in salaries and cuts in positions. Layoffs, you would say. There was also the matter of governance. They had a problem with the board. I think, however, we've dealt with most of their concerns. We're going to take some steps and change some bylaws, including providers and staff people on board committees and in governance.

CCHS had been running deficits. Considering your financial background, was that a major reason for your hiring?

I don't want to disparage any of my predecessors, but probably. There was a deficit of several million dollars the year before this one, resulting from a huge write-off we had to take because of bad debts. We don't have the audit financials out yet, but it looks like we're going to be in the black for the year ending in June 2014. We had been largely dependent on government-based funding, but we've now begun actively seeking grants and donations from individuals and foundations.

What is your staffing situation? The disaffected doctors gave 180-day notice back in May. Have you convinced any of them to stay on? And what's the curve on services?

To date, not any of them have changed their minds, but there still could be some. We have six agencies helping us with recruiting. We'll have enough physicians to handle our patient load. And we're looking at expanding, putting in a new facility on Third Street, and possibly another new clinic. We're going to increase our service level, particularly in the area of behavioral [mental] health. We intend to have a psychiatrist or psychologist at every clinic, up from just one now overall.

Former County Commissioner Steve Mulroy voted for your Title X contract in 2011 but tried to get the contract rebid this year. He said CCHS "saw 1,471 patients in all 12 months of its second year of receiving Title X funds, whereas Planned Parenthood saw 1,488 patients in the three final months of its funding."

He's a good man, but those numbers are incorrect. [He consults with communications adviser Cris Stovall, who contends that the comparative numbers used by Mulroy actually measured a January-June period for CCHS, not a complete year.]

There is the issue of abortion, which was at the heart of the Title X controversy. How do you deal with abortion requests?

We're a Christian organization; so we don't perform abortions because of that. We advise patients that we've got precepts that we follow. If we're asked about it, we can advise them about other clinics. If asked about Planned Parenthood, we will tell them where they're located. If you've got a Christian provider, and a lady wants to get an abortion, he or she is probably going to counsel them that abortion's not the right way to go

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