After 11 years of heading the largest academic healthcare system in New Jersey, Barry H. Ostrowsky is set to retire as president and CEO of RWJBarnabas Health at the end of the year. He leaves a $7.5 billion healthcare system, which includes 12 acute-care hospitals and 38,000 employees, in the hands of Mark Manigan, who will take over as president and CEO on Jan. 1.
In the Q&A below, conducted by RWJBarnabas Health, Ostrowsky discusses lessons learned and his accomplishments during his tenure, while leading the system through a period of industry mergers and consolidations, the demands of the Affordable Care Act, and of course, the COVID-19 pandemic.
Q: Looking back on your leadership, what has been your driving force?
A: I have been privileged to serve the people of New Jersey through this outstanding health system for more than 30 years. I joined Saint Barnabas Medical Center in 1991 as executive vice president and general counsel, and in 2016, with the merger of Barnabas Health and Robert Wood Johnson Health System, I became president and CEO of the combined organization.
Since then, RWJBarnabas Health has grown into a $7.5 billion academic health system that treats millions of my beloved fellow New Jerseyans. Our facilities routinely capture national awards for outstanding quality and safety. My proudest accomplishment is the access to high-quality, culturally competent healthcare that we have delivered to all of the communities we serve across the state.
Q: What did you take from the experience of forming the healthcare/academic partnership between RWJBarnabas and Rutgers?
A: In 2018, we completed an historic, $1 billion public-private partnership with Rutgers University in order to together transform healthcare in New Jersey. Our collective, enduring goals are driving innovations to enhance research and medical professional education, improve access to care, expand access to clinical trials, and reduce health disparities.
When we began to explore the partnership, we set the bar high for what we wanted to accomplish. At the time, New Jersey lagged behind other national leaders in funded research. That translated to fewer clinical trials, less donor interest and more difficulty attracting and retaining top physician talent. Ultimately and most critically, this meant that our patients had fewer options. To address these challenges, we wanted to enhance the relationship between the healthcare delivery system and academia, invest in research and education, and expand access to high-quality care.
However, we were unwilling to delay on moving toward our goals, our two organizations signed a letter of intent to partner in July 2017 and, within 12 months, reached a definitive agreement to invest more than $1 billion over two decades, establish the state’s largest comprehensive medical group and form an overarching integrated academic health system. We knew the partnership was the way forward for the people of New Jersey, and we worked quickly to get it done.
Q: What is the partnership’s impact on New Jersey?
A: We’re already making a real difference in the level of clinical talent available to New Jersey residents. The combined medical group of RWJBarnabas Health and Rutgers Health is among the largest medical groups in the country and brings together nearly 3,000 providers and clinical staff.
Together, we’ve enhanced education opportunities and earmarked financial support to encourage Rutgers medical students to remain in and provide care to residents of New Jersey.
Additionally, in 2021, RWJBarnabas Health and Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, the state’s only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, in partnership with the New Brunswick Development Corporation, the City of New Brunswick and Middlesex County, broke ground on the state’s first 12-story freestanding cancer hospital. With New Jersey-based construction management firm Jingoli, we are also providing on-the-job training and real employment opportunities on the site.
Q: Can you talk about your commitment to reaching beyond the walls of the hospital?
A: I wanted to utilize my leadership to put in place structures that would allow for our organization to positively impact health and well-being in all communities – Black and white, wealthy and vulnerable, and families of all types – for generations to come.
I’m proud that part of my legacy is our system’s ongoing focus on programming that addresses the social determinants of health – the conditions that factor into good health, including economic stability, education, access to healthy food, affordable housing and safe living environments – and our role as an anchor institution in our communities. A decade ago, we began to develop a wide spectrum of community outreach programs and partnerships aimed at improving healthcare disparities and addressing social determinants of health, with a specific focus on economic stability, education, and housing. These programs are just beginning to have an impact on the well-being of our communities.
Our Ending Racism Together initiative is focused on creating a sustained systemic culture shift to racial, ethnic and cultural equity, prioritizing those communities that are most disenfranchised and experience poor health and social, economic and educational outcomes due to the generational effects of racism.
We’ve also prioritized providing LGBTQ and Transgender healthcare. In 2017, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Somerset opened the PROUD Family Health Center, now known as the Babs Siperstein PROUD Center, and three years later, in partnership with Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, established The PROUD Gender Center of New Jersey at RWJUH in New Brunswick, providing a comprehensive suite of services designed to address the transgender community’s healthcare needs.
Women’s health is a crucial part of a family’s well-being. In 2015, we established the RWJBarnabas Health OB Collaborative to assist health care providers in addressing the unacceptable rates of maternal mortality and severe maternal morbidity. We have a particular emphasis on combatting Black infant mortality across our state and are proud to partner with many like-minded non-profit agencies in this regard.
I’m pleased to leave a legacy of community investment by prioritizing and expanding community programs that boost local economic stability. We founded the Social Impact and Community Investment (SICI) initiative to best utilize our system’s assets and resources for long-term health. Through this initiative, RWJBarnabas Health supports Women- and Minority-Owned Businesses, and job training programs that lift up communities by enabling individuals to learn a valuable trade. In 2017, SICI secured authorization for Newark Beth Israel Medical Center to be the state’s first Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) hospital-based vendor; allowing its hydroponic greenhouse to accept SNAP benefits.
Q: You led a major healthcare organization through the COVID pandemic. How did the pandemic transform the system for the long-term?
A: We learned a great deal through the pandemic, not least of which is how important our people are to our success. As we look to use these learnings and instill new best practices, our chief concern remains the health and well-being of our patients, and our staff.
As a result of the challenges we faced during the pandemic, RWJBarnabas formed a strategic council to guide C-suite executives through sharing best practices, setting priorities and allocating resources. Some of those priorities include optimizing our disaster response for potential future pandemics, ending systemic racism and focusing on a more concerted approach to population health management. We also realigned our structure to create a nimble platform that can quickly adapt to the pandemics and emergencies of the future.
RWJBarnabas Health will continue to help the communities of New Jersey thrive for many generations to come, and I look forward to what the future will bring.
Q: What are your plans for 2023 and beyond?
A: My wife, Bobbi, has been my steadfast support throughout our marriage. Our son and daughter both live nearby with their families and I’m a proud grandfather. While I’ll miss my RWJBarnabas Health friends and colleagues, I’m really looking forward to spending more time with my loved ones.
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