LARGO — In early 1984, the staff at tiny DePoo Hospital in Key West gathered to meet their new boss, 24-year-old Tony Degina.
Degina, a New York native fresh out of graduate school, faced a room full of people, most older than him, some a lot older than him. One of Degina's new employees asked a question:
"What makes you qualified to be in charge of this hospital?"
Degina pointed to one of his bosses and said, "Um, because he said so?"
Last month, Degina faced a much less skeptical crowd as he was introduced as the new CEO of Largo Medical Center. In the 28 years since his awkward start at DePoo, Degina has climbed the ranks from that 30-bed hospital to 560-bed University of Miami Hospital, with several stops in between. He steered one hospital through Hurricane Andrew, took another one through a change of ownership and now takes on the challenge of improving Largo Medical Center's standing among local hospitals.
Degina, 53, replaces Ricky Satcher, who left in May to oversee two hospitals in Charlotte County. Degina started in July and is in the process of moving his wife and four daughters to their new home in Belleair.
While he has never lived in the Tampa Bay area, the move to 425-bed Largo Medical Center is a return home of sorts for Degina, as he is again working for Hospital Corporation of America. From 1992 though 2007, Degina worked at three HCA hospitals in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area.
Degina was chief operating officer of Miami's Columbia Deering Hospital in 1992 when Hurricane Andrew tore off the roof, blew in windows, knocked out power and flooded halls. He oversaw the rebuilding of that hospital and later became its CEO. He then moved to Cedars Medical Center. When it was sold to the University of Miami in 2007, Degina oversaw its transition from a community hospital to an academic medical center.
David Zambrana, Degina's former chief operating officer at University of Miami Hospital, lauded his old boss' ability to manage changes at that hospital while also dealing with the pressures of the recession. Degina's strengths, Zambrana said, include always being open to diverging opinions and having his finger on the pulse of the needs of his hospital's community.
In Largo, Degina sees a need he saw in Miami a few years ago: in-patient hospice care. Degina oversaw the creation of University of Miami's 10-bed hospice program, which involved partnering with a for-profit hospice company to lease hospital space.
Largo Medical patients shouldn't notice much of a difference with a new CEO, Degina said, except better service.
While Largo Medical is owned by health care giant HCA, Pinellas County's hospital scene is dominated by BayCare Health System. The 10-hospital network includes 687-bed Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater and 300-bed Mease Countryside Hospital.
Largo Medical ranks behind both those hospitals in most categories of patient satisfaction, according to surveys filed with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. When asked if they'd definitely recommend the hospital, 80 percent of Morton Plant patients said yes, compared with 76 percent of Mease Countryside patients and 66 percent of Largo Medical patients.
Degina expects Largo's numbers to rise, and he's poised to make that happen, according to Jay Wolfson, a University of South Florida professor of public health and medicine.
The health care industry is in the midst of transition, Wolfson said, prompted in part by federal legislation that puts premiums on efficiency. A leader with Degina's experience running large hospitals in "the most intensive, expensive, complicated place to do business in the state" can use HCA's resources to quickly make improvements at a hospital the size of Largo Medical Center, Wolfson said.
"He knows the game, and he'll get tremendous support," Wolfson said.
What will a new CEO mean for Largo Medical Center's 1,488 employees? Degina complimented the staff he inherited. He said he will bring everyone on board with a culture of patient care that will produce higher satisfaction ratings. He doesn't expect layoffs.
The first few months are for setting goals, Degina said. Then, he will determine the course for his new hospital for the next year. There are many decisions to be made.
"All of that," he said, "is yet to come."
Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or email@example.com. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.