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Baptism by fire

Garrett's past in the ER prepped him for fight over Pascack Valley

Hackensack University Medical Center president and CEO Robert Garrett

Decades before he became its president and CEO, Robert Garrett spent better than two years running Hackensack University Medical Center‘s emergency department, starting as an administrative resident in 1981. That assignment taught him how to juggle many responsibilities under pressure — valuable…

Decades before he became its president and CEO, Robert Garrett spent better than two years running Hackensack University Medical Center‘s emergency department, starting as an administrative resident in 1981. That assignment taught him how to juggle many responsibilities under pressure — valuable training for his role as hospital chief, as he simultaneously works to reopen a bankrupt facility, expand Hackensack’s footprint and lead the system through health care reform.

“You talk about baptism by fire — it was unbelievable,” Garrett said. “I got to really know a lot of people, know the systems. Certainly the emergency department is not a place that there’s a lot of planning, because you never know what each day brings. I really got a chance to see the hospital in action from the ground level.”

The fire became an inferno, though, in the last five years, as Garrett faced his toughest fight yet — his successful bid to reopen the former Pascack Valley Hospital, which closed its doors in 2007. Garrett’s concept — a 128-bed, acute-care hospital at the Westwood site — divided Bergen County residents and drew heavy fire from two of his biggest competitors.

Hackensack and LHP Hospital Group Inc. last week won approval to reopen Pascack as Hackensack UMC at Pascack Valley, over the objections of Englewood Hospital and Medical Center and Valley Hospital. Representatives of those hospitals have said a reopened Pascack would weaken the two providers financially and add more beds to a county that has a surplus. But Garrett said the hospital was shut due to financial mismanagement, and would still be operating today if the owners had been more fiscally prudent.

The Health Department’s decision to side with the reopening “reinforced what we were saying all along — that there was a need for this hospital and the need for the community to have their hospital back,” Garrett said. “It did not close because of lack of need. It closed because of poor management choices.”

It wasn’t long ago that poor management choices were a problem for Hackensack, too. Garrett took an interim president role after CEO John Ferguson retired amid an investigation by then-U.S. Attorney Chris Christie, who won a conviction against then-state Sen. Joseph Coniglio for using his political seat to steer more than $1 million in public funding to Hackensack after the hospital hired him as a consultant.

The interim part was soon removed; Garrett said he “was kind of in a perfect spot” to rebuild the hospital’s reputation, “because I represented the history of the place … but also, I came in as a new leader, and I had the opportunity to move it forward.”

“From my perspective, there was a lot of unrest at Hackensack University Medical Center when Bob became the CEO; there was acrimony with the board and the prior CEO,” said Jon F. Hanson, an emeritus board member at the hospital and chairman of the Morristown-based Hampshire Cos. “He brought calm to the scene, and I think that still prevails — he’s a calming influence.”

Bruce Meisel, president and CEO of Pascack Community Bank and an active participant in Pascack’s reopening, said he believes Garrett was adept at juggling the political side of the application process, especially once gubernatorial candidate Christie made the reopening a part of his campaign in 2009.

“This has not been easy, because of the relentless opposition from two other hospitals,” Meisel said. “His talent has been in managing the process and keeping a very complicated business proposition, community proposition, administrative proposition and legal proposition, to keep all those balls in the air at the same time.”

But Garrett dismisses the notion that Hackensack received any preferential treatment from Christie, and said Pascack’s reopening was a matter of business.

The old Pascack “was too big, in terms of what the needs of the community were — but we also knew by keeping it closed, there was going to be a need that was unmet,” he said, noting that Hackensack UMC at Pascack Valley will have less than half the beds Pascack did. “I also knew Hackensack was not asking for public money … we were taking the total business risk on our own with our partner, so I knew that was a strong case to be made as well.”

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