Starkman: Corewell Anesthesia Sh#% Show Latest Debacle for CEO Tina Freese Decker

August 31, 2023, 4:03 PM

The writer, a Los Angeles freelancer and former Detroit News business reporter, blogs at

By Eric Starkman

Tina Freese Decker

Hard as it is to believe, Corewell Health CEO Tina Freese Decker is fast proving she’s a bigger disaster than former Beaumont Health CEO John Fox, who was responsible for driving the once prestigious hospital system into the ground. Freese Decker assumed control of Beaumont’s operations, Metro Detroit’s biggest hospital system, in February of last year.

Things are going badly.

Very badly.

Freese Decker’s latest debacle is a looming crisis that could potentially leave Corewell’s Royal Oak, Troy, and Grosse Pointe hospitals with a crippling shortage of anesthesiologists and nurse anesthetists beginning in January and could derail the hospitals’ already diminished surgery businesses. That, in turn, could potentially prompt more physicians and nurses to flee Corewell’s perennially troubled southeastern Michigan hospital system.

NorthStar Anesthesia, the Texas-based outsourcing firm that manages Corewell’s anesthesia services at all its southeastern Michigan hospitals except Farmington Hills, in recent weeks gave notice that it wouldn’t continue servicing the facilities when its contract expires at the end of the year. That means Corewell must find replacements for about 80 anesthesiologists and 200 nurse anesthetists working at its northern Royal Oak, Troy, and Grosse Pointe hospitals by January 1.

Despite losing more than a dozen high volume surgeons in recent years, Beaumont Royal Oak remains one of the nation’s busiest surgical centers, performing about 200 surgeries a day. Asked about the probability of Corewell managing to find the requisite anesthesiologists and nurse anesthetists it requires by January, an industry source replied, “zero.”

“It’s a disaster,” the source said. “Surgery is the engine that drives hospitals. It’s going to drag them down further.”

Dr. Benjamin Schwartz

The looming anesthesia crisis likely was a factor in the unexpected departure of Dr. Ben Schwartz, an accomplished New York physician with a Harvard healthcare management master’s degree who Freese Decker lured with great fanfare to run Beaumont’s former Metro Detroit hospitals thirteen months ago. My understanding is that Schwartz refused to deal with NorthStar and let it be known that he was confident he could replace the firm’s anesthesiologists and anesthetists assigned to his northern Royal Oak, Troy, and Grosse Pointe hospitals if they didn’t accept a take-it-or-leave-it offer.

What’s exacerbated its anesthesia crisis is Corewell’s refusal to recognize the Teamsters union, which represents the NorthStar nurse anesthetists working at the health system’s Metro Detroit northern hospitals. That’s surprising given that the Teamsters had a close relationship with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and was a major supporter of the civil rights movement. Freese Decker previously indicated she was influenced by King’s teachings and her bio earlier said her biggest priority was building a health system that “celebrates and reinforces diversity and inclusion.”

The Teamsters

Teamsters honor MLK Jr. (Teamster photo)

Having Teamsters representation at her hospital system would seem like a dream come true for Freese Decker. The national union in April inducted King as an honorary union member to commemorate the 55th anniversary of the civil rights leader’s assassination when he was in Memphis supporting striking sanitation workers.

King was a diehard union and employee rights supporter.

Corewell is the name of the hospital system created by the integration of Grand Rapids-based Spectrum Health and Southfield-based Beaumont Health. Although the two health systems claimed the merged operations would have dual headquarters, Corewell is run entirely out of Grand Rapids. Not one of Fox’s top executives remain.

Corewell’s anesthesia crisis has its origins in June of 2020, when then Beaumont COO Carolyn Wilson, who some dubbed “Nurse Ratched” because of her RN degree and dour demeanor, threw some 80 anesthesiologists and nearly 200 nurse anesthetists to the curb at the height of Covid with an announcement that she was outsourcing their jobs to NorthStar as part of a cost cutting move.

Although NorthStar made job offers with lucrative bonuses to the anesthesia staff employed at Beaumont’s northern hospitals, about half of them declined to accept the offers because the outsourcing company at the time didn’t have a good industry reputation.

Underscoring concerns about NorthStar’s reputation, the co-heads of Beaumont Royal Oak’s once prestigious cardiology department wrote to the hospital chair saying they had “serious concerns” about NorthStar’s capabilities. Within three weeks of NorthStar taking over at Beaumont Royal Oak, a healthy 51-year-old patient named Richard Curbelo died from anesthesia complications while undergoing a routine colonoscopy.

The Beaumont nurse anesthetists who joined NorthStar quickly moved to form a union upon their arrival. Last fall, the NorthStar nurse anesthetists servicing Corewell opted to join the Teamsters, a representation NorthStar recognized. Amid threats of a strike, the nurse anesthetists negotiated a contract with NorthStar they felt was fair.

Although the former Beaumont nurse anesthetists had issues with NorthStar early in the relationship, over time everyone appears to have made nice, particularly as NorthStar allowed the anesthetists to replenish their diminished team and restore their ranks to levels they insisted were necessary to ensure adequate patient safety and care. Patient safety has been one of the anesthetists’ overriding concerns.

Throwing In The Towel

NorthStar threw in the towel in its dealings with Corewell in recent weeks. According to sources, Corewell refused to make the firm whole on losses it was sustaining servicing its northern hospital facilities. Industry sources tell me that NorthStar’s request for a “subsidy” is common if an outsourcing firm is losing money servicing a contract. In healthy corporate partnerships, the request is typically granted.  

Corewell spokesman Mark Geary ignored a request for comment. NorthStar declined to comment.

With NorthStar sailing into the sunset, Corewell understandably wants its former nurse anesthetists back and is offering them $10,000 signing bonuses if they agree to return as hospital employees. Having been callously discarded by Beaumont’s former management, none of the impacted 200 nurse anesthetists are understood to have taken the bait, nor have the 80 or so NorthStar anesthesiologists working at Corewell’s northern hospitals.

There is a critical shortage of top-flight experienced anesthesiologists and nurse anesthetists in southeastern Michigan; NorthStar anesthetists serving Corewell’s northern hospitals have lots more options than when Beaumont’s Wilson pawned them off to the outsourcing firm without their input during a pandemic that required them to perform critical intubation procedures on Covid patients at great risk to their health.

The $10,000 bonus Corewell has offered the NorthStar nurse anesthetists staffing its northern hospitals is piddly by prevailing standards. Typical signing bonuses for southeastern Michigan nurse anesthetists range from $20,000 to $40,000.

Ex-Beaumont CEO John Fox

The NorthStar nurse anesthetists have repeatedly demonstrated they are fierce and united, having voted nearly unanimously in favor when they held their first union authorization vote. By comparison, Beaumont’s Fox derailed a union drive of Beaumont’s Royal Oak nurses in 2019, albeit after having spent nearly $2 million on union busters to intimidate them.

Despite having Corewell by its corporate cojones, the NorthStar anesthetists servicing the northern hospitals aren’t holding out for better financial terms than they negotiated under their current contract. But they insist that Corewell recognize the Teamsters as their bargaining agent and that any employee return agreement must be negotiated under the auspices of the union.

Corewell has steadfastly refused.

“According to federal labor laws, (nurse anesthetists) are not an appropriate bargaining unit at Corewell Health. Therefore we will not negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with the Teamsters,” the hospital system told the nurse anesthetists in a communique.

Teamster Love? 

Based on Freese Decker’s previous comments, one would expect that Freese Decker would be honored to have the Teamsters represent her employees.

Martin Luther King Jr.

In a message to employees last September announcing she was firing 400 employees, Freese Decker invoked the memory of Martin Luther King.

“Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘Our survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenges of change,’” Freese Decker began her message. “I chose a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. because it spoke to me at this moment. Things are hard. With the current economic situation, there are no easy solutions. Thus, we need to adjust to new ideas, remain vigilant and face the challenges head on as an integrated system.”

Fortunately for Freese Decker, her invoking the memory of King escaped national media attention. Jennifer Tejeda, CEO of San Francisco-based PagerDuty, earlier this year also quoted King in her layoff memo and was harshly criticized by reporters for doing so. Tejeda subsequently apologized for invoking King’s memory in a memo about firing employees, admitting it was “inappropriate and insensitive.”

According to the Teamsters website, the union played an instrumental role in the civil rights movement.

Freese Decker’s point persons to negotiate with the NorthStar anesthetists are David Warsing, who recently joined from the University of Washington and is understood to spend half his time in South Dakota and Dr. Timothy Lyons, president of Corewell’s Grosse Pointe hospital.

Warsing and Lyons strike me as clueless as Freese Decker. They gave the NorthStar anesthetists until Sept. 1 to agree to come back and threatened that all sorts of bad things will happen if they don’t. That’s doesn’t strike me as a good negotiating ploy in the current market, particularly dealing with the Teamsters, whose leader proudly describes himself as an S.O.B. and just negotiated a sweetheart contract for his UPS members.

On Thursday afternoon, Darryl Elmouchi, a Grand Rapids-based Corewell executive who is running the company’s southeastern Michigan operations on a temporary basis, sent an email advising that the deadline for accepting the company’s employment offer was extended until September 15.

If Corewell can’t get its northern hospitals’ anesthesia staffs up and running by January 1, it could be forced to use locums, the healthcare industry term for temps, and pay double the wages. 

Way to go Tina Freese Decker. Maybe you should have listened to Spectrum’s former CFO, who publicly warned against taking over Beaumont. Dare I say it, but exactly a year ago this month I wrote this column headlined, “Beaumont’s Woes Prove CEO Tina Freese Decker Unfit To Run Michigan’s Biggest Hospital System.”

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