Corporate Citizenship - Corporate Counsel A Healthcare System Serving Boston And The World

Saturday, October 1, 2005 - 01:00

The Editor interviews Brent L. Henry, Vice President and General Counsel, Partners HealthCare System, Boston.

Editor: Mr. Henry, will you tell us something about your career?

Henry: I began practicing law at Jones Day in 1974. I started as a generalist and spent four years learning the basic elements of corporate law.

A friend of mine helped elect Ed Koch as Mayor of New York in the late '70s, and through him I had an opportunity to direct the city's Medicaid program. I did that for some 18 months and then rejoined Jones Day in their Washington, DC office. For the next two years I worked to develop a healthcare practice - my experience in New York had given me a real interest in the area - but this was not a sector that large firms were embracing at the time. I decided that it was time to move on and directly into the industry.

I spent a couple of years at a small medical center in Washington called Greater Southeast Community Hospital, where I learned a great deal about the provider side of the industry. I then received a call from the predecessor organization to MedStar Health, which was looking for a general counsel with law firm, government and healthcare experience. I fit the bill, and from 1985 to 2002 I served as general counsel. During that period, the organization became the largest health care system in the Washington-Baltimore corridor, growing by acquisitions and a merger from two hospitals to seven. In 2002 I was recruited to become Vice President & General Counsel of Partners HealthCare System.

Editor: What attracted you to Partners HealthCare?

Henry: Having been in healthcare for more than 20 years, I came to know which hospital systems were among the leaders in the industry. Partners was at the top of this list, and has provided me with an opportunity to move to a different level of involvement in clinical excellence, research innovation and medical policy initiatives.

Editor: Please tell us about the origins of Partners.

Henry: Partners was established in 1994 by two of Boston's most well-known and respected hospitals, Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women's Hospital, which are the two largest teaching hospitals of Harvard Medical School. Since that time, several community and specialty hospitals have been added to the system, and we have developed the most extensive physician and home care networks in the region. We are now the largest private employer in Massachusetts, with close to 35,000 employees. Combined with a research enterprise that generates in excess of $800 million in revenue a year, it is a very exciting place to be.

Editor: What is the organization's mission?

Henry: There are three aspects to our mission. Our close affiliation with Harvard gives Partners a strong academic orientation, in terms of both teaching and research. All of our physicians have Harvard faculty appointments. That constitutes one aspect of the mission. As the largest hospital system in New England, Partners sees an extraordinary number of patients, and thus a second aspect of the mission is excellence in clinical care. The third aspect of our mission is community service. We are affiliated with and support a number of local community health centers, disease prevention and treatment initiatives, and have an increasing commitment to addressing health challenges of underserved populations, both at home and abroad.

Editor: Does a non-profit institution possess corporate values that differ from, say, a law firm or a for-profit enterprise?

Henry: Yes, I think it does. The essence of that difference stems from their respective corporate "obligations," if you will. As I see it, the obligation of the for-profit public company is to maximize shareholder value, while the obligation of tax-exempt non-profits is to serve the needs of their constituent communities. At Partners, we perceive our community to consist not only of the patients who come to us, but also the students, residents and fellows of Harvard Medical School, as well as larger populations who are in a position to benefit from our groundbreaking research and clinical expertise. For example, we recently sent medical teams to Indonesia to help with tsunami relief, and to the Gulf coast to care for victims of Hurricane Katrina. We have a department of international medicine that helps support clinics in Haiti and other underserved areas of the world. Our research discoveries benefit the scientific community by enabling new drugs and therapies to be more quickly developed. Unlike for-profit companies that distribute their profits, all of our excess revenues are retained and reinvested in facilities and programs that enhance our ability to serve our constituent communities.

Editor: Please tell us about the Office of General Counsel.

Henry: The office consists of 24 lawyers, 4 paralegals and a number of administrative assistants. We are divided into four main practice groups, that we refer to as Sections: Employment, Professional Staff, Patient Care and Litigation; Institutional Affiliations and Regulatory Services; Research and Technology; and Corporate Services and Payor Relations. Each is coordinated by a Section Head who reports to me. Within each of the Sections we have developed in-house expertise in additional areas such as real estate, tax, labor relations, software licensing, acquisitions and joint ventures, to name a few. I also oversee Corporate Compliance.

Editor: When you do call upon outside counsel for support, how do you go about selecting them? Are there specific criteria?

Henry: Yes. We have a formal engagement letter that spells out our criteria. Once a year we meet with the firms that do a major portion of our work and provide them with feedback based on our own internal evaluation of their overall performance. The criteria include: general knowledge and skills in the relevant subject areas; efficient management of the matters assigned to them; ability to work effectively with our lawyers; cost consciousness; and of course, the results achieved. We also assess whether they have been able to achieve appropriate diversity goals.

Editor: How does the position of General Counsel fit into the senior management structure?

Henry: I am a member of the senior executive team, which consists of the CEO, the COO the CFO, the Vice President for Human Resources and the heads of the major operating divisions. The Chief Academic Officer is also a member of the team. I attend Board of Directors meetings and serve as the board's legal advisor. I am not the Corporate Secretary, but that position reports to me.

With respect to the legal department itself, I am more of a manager than a hands-on practitioner. Fortunately, I have a tremendous team of very talented professionals. I spend a fair amount of my time involved in the legal aspects of the organization's strategic and operational initiatives.

Editor: Through its members, Partners has been part of the larger Boston community for a very long time. Please tell us about the organization's place in Boston.

Henry: One of our charter hospitals - Massachusetts General - was founded in 1811, so our notion of community service has very deep roots. And while - as a group of world-class hospitals - we serve a global constituency, Boston is our home. Our physicians have served prominently on Mayor Menino's Task Force on Racial Disparities, and major programs addressing this issue have been launched at our two founding hospitals. Our policy experts have been very involved in healthcare reform initiatives at both the state and federal levels. We recently unveiled a discount policy for uninsured patients, and we keep our finger on the pulse of community medicine though the twenty-one community health centers that are owned or affiliated with our system. We are not simply in the business of delivering hospital care. Rather, we stand on the front lines with those who seek to enhance the delivery of healthcare to all of our communities.

Editor: You set a pretty good example yourself in terms of community and volunteer work. Would you tell us about some of these undertakings?

Henry: In one way or another, just about everything I do outside of Partners complements what I do within the organization.

The American Health Lawyers Association (AHLA) is the country's premier education and information exchange organization for attorneys practicing healthcare law. I became actively involved in AHLA about the time I was leaving Jones Day and entering the healthcare industry. Eventually, I was invited to serve on the AHLA governing board and, in 1994, became President. A few months ago, I was honored to be included in the first class of recently named AHLA Fellows, which has given me the opportunity to help plan a series of "masters" classes in healthcare law for seasoned practitioners.

Earlier this summer, I was elected to the Council of the Boston Bar Association. I was nominated in recognition of the fact that healthcare institutions play such a significant role in the Boston economy. I certainly hope that I can make a contribution to the organization that has served both the legal profession and the Boston community so well over such a long period of time.

I have also been privileged to serve my alma mater, Princeton, in various capacities for many years. In 1969, the year I graduated, I was elected to the Board of Trustees as the first Young Alumni Trustee. Over the years that followed, I continued to do volunteer work for Princeton, and rejoined the Board as a Charter Trustee after serving a stint as chair of the Alumni Association.

My service on the National Institutes of Health Advisory Board for Clinical Research has allowed me to get to understand medicine from the government-funded research side.

Finally, my service on the governing board of the Public Welfare Foundation provides me with an opportunity to identify and support replicable community-based programs in healthcare and a range of other social service areas. I was invited to join that board while I was chairing the board of one of their grantees, Green Door, a community-based mental health services provider in Washington, DC.

Editor: I know you are not doing all of these things at the same time, but, still, how do you manage to balance your extracurricular career with a very demanding professional life?

Henry: As I said, these activities often complement what I am doing professionally. Sitting on the board of a major university is very useful experience in dealing with issues at Harvard Medical School, for example. My governance role at Princeton gives me a deeper understanding of the issues confronting academic research. Much of what I advise on at NIH is complementary to the research that goes on here. Understanding how much impact what we do here has on the larger scientific and medical policy community is both very helpful and very rewarding.

Editor: What about the future? Where would you like to see Partners in, say, five years?

Henry: About two years ago, Partners embarked on a set of five signature initiatives. The first is to maximize the use of new clinical information technology. The second is to increase patient safety and reduce medical errors. The third is to make high quality patient care uniform across the Partners system. The fourth is to coordinate care for patients with high cost diseases, such as congestive heart failure and diabetes. The fifth is to improve efficiency in the use of prescription drugs and radiology procedures. We have pursued these initiatives with great determination, and have made some real progress. Our ultimate goal, over the next five years, is to establish Partners as an industry benchmark for patient safety, efficiency and quality of care.

Editor: And Brent Henry?

Henry: As you can see, Partners is an exciting place to be right now, and I cannot imagine being anywhere else.