The University of Maryland Medical System has chosen an insider as its chief executive officer, a year after a self-dealing scandal created months of turmoil. Dr. Mohan Suntha rose quickly up the ranks from physician, to the head of one of the system’s suburban hospitals and then to the top position at its flagship medical center in downtown Baltimore. Leading the whole system would have been the natural progression a year or so ago — before Healthy Holly.
The system is still recovering from the scheme that started with the revelation it had paid former Mayor Catherine Pugh hundreds of thousands of dollars for her Healthy Holly children’s books while she was a member of the UMMS board. It was later revealed that companies of about a third of the board had deals with UMMS. Ms. Pugh stepped down from her job of mayor amid investigations into the deals, and the medical system’s leadership and several board members lost their positions in the fallout. Now, Dr. Suntha will be charged with rebuilding the reputation and changing the culture of the very institution where he built his career. The radiation oncologist began his medical career with the University of Maryland in 1991 as a resident, before working his way up through the system. He also has an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
And while Dr. Suntha was not directly involved with any of the contracts, his hiring will no doubt raise eyebrows among many who believe the system needs an infusion of new blood and a fresh start. Putting him in the position creates optics problems, particularly given his close ties to former board member and state Sen. Francis X. Kelly, whose insurance company Kelly & Associates Insurance Group had done millions of dollars in business with the hospital network under contracts that were not competitively bid. Dr. Suntha will be scrutinized, and rightfully so.
That doesn’t mean Dr. Suntha is not the right person to steady the $4 billion network of 13 hospitals with 28,000 employees and millions of patient. He has a history of cleaning up the system’s messes. It was his calm and competent leadership that brought St. Joseph Medical System in Towson back to financial solvency after a hemorraghing of patients and doctors resulted when its star cardiologist was accused of placing unnecessary stents in patients. Dr. Suntha also confronted a patient dumping case at the system’s Midtown Campus head-on with an immediate apology and quickly implemented changes to that hospital’s protocols.
As CEO, he should practice transparency to the fullest, and question and scrutinize his board without impunity. The board should do the same with Dr. Suntha. No more rubber stamping. His predecessor was able to work out the Healthy Holly deal with Ms. Pugh independently of the board. That should never happen again. Contracts with past board members should also be watched closely for fairness or favoritism.
It helps that the board — which is led by two members who were there at the time of the Healthy Holly scandal, though not involved in it — has already taken reform actions of its own, including adopting a conflict of interest policy that bars sole-source contracts with board members and prohibits personal services contracts with board members altogether. Mr. Suntha will have a guide to follow.
We also await the audit, due out by the end of the year, that the state Department of Legislative Services is conducting to get a more complete picture on what lead to the procurement scandal at the system. A separate audit, paid for by the system, didn’t get to the root of the problem. That needs to happen to prevent a repeat of the self-dealing that rocked the system. Whatever the state audit suggests, we hope Dr. Suntha and the board will embrace it.
The system has already shown it is willing to change. We hope now that it follows through. Dr. Suntha takes his position Dec. 1. We look forward to seeing his plans to ensure a more accountable system.