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Columbia chief takes edge off

Dr. Thomas Frist, chief executive of Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp., on Monday reported to employees on his first 100 days in office. And though Frist's speech, broadcast live to more than 300 hospitals, was long on platitudes and short on specifics, it reinforced a message Frist has been sending since taking over at Columbia on July 25.

Put patients first and profits will take care of themselves. The adversarial, in-your-face Columbia is a thing of the past. And more decisions will be made at the community rather than corporate level.

Nashville, Tenn.-based Columbia has been the subject of a year-long federal investigation that has resulted in the indictment of three hospital executives. Frist, a longtime Columbia board member, replaced chief executive Rick Scott in a boardroom coup last summer.

Since then, 10 of the top 14 executives at Columbia's headquarters have been replaced. The company has announced plans to sell its home health division and buy out physicians' investments in its hospitals, two areas of particular government concern. Frist has also ended cash bonuses for managers and dropped a national brand advertising campaign.

But for Columbia employees, Frist's biggest achievement so far may be simply allowing them to choose their own soft drink at work. Referring to the corporate mandate under Scott to carry only Pepsi products in Columbia hospitals, Frist got laughs when he said, "Is it Pepsi or is it Coke? It's up to you."

Frist's decision to move more decisions _ from the most trivial on up _ back to the individual hospital level was well received by about 20 department heads at Columbia Largo Medical Center in Largo. Packed into a small classroom like dutiful students, the hospital executives were quick to notice differences between Frist's performance and the video-conferences held in the past with Scott.

"Rick Scott would stand up there and introduce someone with the new corporate diabetes package, for instance, and say, "This is how we're going to go about doing business,' " said Martha Micallef, chief nursing officer. "We're hearing Frist say today that we should do what's best for our marketplace."

About half of the administrators at the Largo hospital said they personally know Frist, who founded the Hospital Corporation of America chain that included Largo Medical Center before the company was sold to Columbia. Many employees at Largo also remember _ and have high regard for _ Jack Bovender, Largo Medical's first administrator and now Columbia's president.

The Largo executives seemed unconcerned that Frist was unable to give specifics when asked about possible hospital sales or when the company's stock might recoup some of the 35 percent loss it has incurred since the government investigation became public. Columbia's shares closed Monday at $28.18}, down 6{ cents.

"I think Dr. Frist is saying we have to get away from asking what the stock is doing today and focus on the patients, not the stockholders' value," said Thomas L. Herron, president and chief executive at Largo. "Our new mission statement is not going to focus on profit, profit, profit."

And for Herron, that means a major change in how he does his job.

"There's less pressure," said Herron, who has been with Columbia since 1994 and at Largo Medical since August 1996. "There's an expectation you'll manage the business professionally and prudently and get the job done. But in the past, you were expected to hit a grand slam home run every time. They were always looking for a three-point play. Now a double, a single or even a bunt is okay. The company's expectations are much more realistic."