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Health Care Outlook: Ron Prenger

CoxHealth Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer

Posted online

With a 42-year career at CoxHealth, Ron Prenger was promoted in 2019 to drive key operational priorities and now all the system hospitals report to him.

2020 Projection: Though health care reform remains uncertain, local focus will remain on community health efforts to stay educated and prepared for whatever comes next.

SBJ: Describe health care in 2020 in one word.
Prenger: Unknown. Health care reform is on everyone’s mind, but we’re walking into an election year and I’m not sure where things are going to go. Doing something meaningful, I think, is going to be curtailed a little bit for fear of how that might affect the chance of being elected or not elected.

SBJ: How do you prepare for the unknown?
Prenger: With the expectation that there will be efforts put into health care reform and we know most of those approaches are going to address integrated delivery systems. What it will be, we are not sure. But we know there will be some type of model there that will come forward. The way we stay prepared is making sure our strategic initiatives are aligned – staying educated.

SBJ: What current health issues are of concern for Springfield?
Prenger: We just went through the local initiative to push no smoking; you can’t buy tobacco unless you’re 21. Diabetes, obesity and cardiology are issues. Greene County and the Springfield communities are really taking this seriously.

SBJ: Then, there is the opioid crisis. What’s the strategy in 2020?
Prenger: Last year was the effort to bring in the (Prescription Drug Monitoring Program) out of St. Louis County, which helps us to address those that are misusing the opioids so that we are not contributing to people that are using the (emergency room) or clinic hoping to get opioids. I know the legislature will be taking that up again this year to look at a statewide type of program.

SBJ: How has the legalization of medical marijuana changed health care?
Prenger: Health systems locally are not in the business of certifying patients. There are many local businesses that are doing that professionally. CoxHealth takes the position … that they aren’t certifying patients, they are not in the process of prescribing, and that is due to the complexity of the laws and regulations that we agree not to violate any federal laws in regards to getting federal reimbursement for Medicare. This is one of the things that I think is an evolving process. It is not surprising they’re looking at legislation now to legalize it recreationally and that will change everything. The difference between state and federal laws puts people in a confusing place.

SBJ: There has been a shortage of nurses and physicians for years. Is this still an area of focus for 2020?
Prenger: It’s very hard to find a place where you don’t have challenges hiring quality health care professionals. Most notably, you see it with nurses and physicians, but it is reaching to all areas. I think it will continue to be a major challenge for years because of the number of people reaching retirement age.

SBJ: Missouri is a vastly rural state. How is this population being approached?
Prenger: We’ve lost a lot of the small, little hospitals and this is a huge issue for those patients in rural areas. It’s always hard for small rural hospitals to meet all the regulations or be able to attract adequate, qualified staff to provide services. One of the biggest focuses is making sure that we expand and provide open access … and making sure we have clinics in appropriate places.

SBJ: What is of critical importance for the health care industry to focus on in 2020?
Prenger: Reducing workplace violence. We continue to implement programs and provide continued training to employees to be able to de-escalate situations. Our CEO, along with several other health care leaders, went to Washington to share with them the conflicting rules that we have interest in and what we try to do to meet patients’ rights versus (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) requirements. Their efforts, along with Sen. [Roy] Blunt, have made some difference in terms of how we can fix this by working together as opposed to their regulations working against each other. It goes back to workplace issues that we dealt with that are … driven by an individual that had substance abuse. So the corollary effect is addressing substance abuse and mental health crises. There is limited access to mental health care in the state of Missouri.

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