Michael Phillips will be the first to tell you that he has no plans to retire any time soon. In fact, he will even elaborate and suggest that he can think of no better organization with which to spend the rest of his time in law. “This has been a great way to finish my career, given all the people we’ve been able to help,” Phillips says.
He’s referring to MetroHealth, a health system based in Ohio that is committed to providing healthcare to everyone in Cuyahoga County and improving the health of the community overall. But before joining MetroHealth, Phillips started his career in an age before specializations. “To be candid, being of the age I am, I predated special programs and classes in healthcare,” he says. After nearly forty years of working in private practice, Phillips made a transition and joined The MetroHealth System, where to this day he is the senior vice president and chief legal officer.
With so much on his plate, Phillips marvels at how far his career has come since its humble beginnings. Coming to Cleveland after graduation to become a corporate finance lawyer at Calfee, Halter & Griswold in 1977, Phillips spent the first decade of his practice becoming involved in partnership and transactional work in a variety of fields, including tax-oriented ventures and energy.
Phillips credits his early days at Calfee with the development of many of his skills at MetroHealth. “There were a lot of opportunities given to a young lawyer to work directly with clients,” he recalls. “The firm had a healthcare practice even before a lot of corporate firms called themselves a health law practice group.”
His first real exposure to health law was through his background as a tax lawyer, accomplishing work for 501(c)(3) tax-exempt hospitals. Then in 1988, his managing partner asked him whether he would be willing to help out in the healthcare practice area of Calfee. “Back then, there were a lot of healthcare lawyers who knew the internal workings of a hospital, but not many with a corporate law background,” Phillips recalls. From there, the rest is history. Phillips would go on to spend twenty-plus years focusing on healthcare law at Calfee, with much of that time being spent representing MetroHealth.
During his time as external counsel, Phillips found himself working as special counsel to the board of trustees in early 1993, advising the board’s leadership during a critical transitional phase. This afforded him the opportunity to work extensively with MetroHealth’s general counsel at the time, becoming the primary outside counsel for much of the regulatory public law work that MetroHealth needed.
In addition to his strong relationship with the board today, Phillips finds the challenges of his work quite rewarding. “One bit of self-awareness I’ve realized over the years is that I like complex legal issues, structures, and clients,” Phillips says.
And Phillips received plenty of it while navigating the complexities of MetroHealth’s mission as a billion-dollar safety net hospital for Cuyahoga County. Even so, transitioning fully to MetroHealth was a decision that Phillips did not take lightly. “I enjoyed the variety of what I was doing,” says Phillips of his work, but adds that he still turned down the offer for a position at MetroHealth several times before joining.
Fast Facts: The MetroHealth System’s Transformation Project
- In May 2017, The MetroHealth System issued $946 million in revenue bonds to pay for construction of a new twelve-story hospital and upgrade its main campus on West 25th Street
- Construction is scheduled to begin in 2018 and completed in 2022
- MetroHealth is set to receive a $32.4 million appropriation from the county—less than 4 percent of its annual operating revenue
In 2012, Phillips became interim chief legal officer at the behest of Metro’s then-CEO Mark Moran during a transition period for the role of general counsel. Five months later, the board hired current CEO Akram Boutros. On his third day, Boutros asked Phillips to come on permanently. After initially declining, Phillips says, “I concluded that the time and place was right. I haven’t regretted it since.”
Among his responsibilities as chief legal officer is his involvement in supervising all the legal services of the system and managing the group that handles all of MetroHealth’s legal work—from basic healthcare to corporate work—as well as risk management and professional liability issues. Phillips is also responsible to the CEO and board of trustees, acting as general counsel to the board as a continuation of his previous work as outside counsel. Phillips also manages a team of five attorneys, while they search for a sixth senior attorney to join their ranks. “It’s not a huge group, but we get an awful lot done,” Phillips says.
Phillips has spent the last several years working out a nearly $1.3 billion bond for a hospital transformation of MetroHealth’s facilities. Among the objectives of this work includes plans to replace the two towers at the hospital, which are more than forty years old and require expensive maintenance and repairs. Through Phillips’s work, the team of underwriters, and the help of outside counsel, they’ve managed to scale back the project significantly, working the amount of funds needed down to about $963 million. The hospital transformation will allow MetroHealth to update to more modern facilities that are easier to maintain: a new garage, new hospital, and updated outpatient facilities, as well as a new central utility plant. The goal is also to ensure that patients stay as close to family and friends as possible when they need short-stay hospital care.
Outside of this major project, Phillips has spent the majority of his time on other significant initiatives. For example, he has been working on organizational changes to adjust for potential alterations to the government’s allocation of Medicaid. Ohio is a Medicare expansion state, with a large population of Medicaid recipients. Perhaps his most significant value is combining his unique knowledge of MetroHealth’s governing statute with his healthcare experience to find ways for the health system to adapt to the rapidly changing healthcare environment and pursue new business models not contemplated when the decades-old county hospital law was enacted.
Through these projects and more, Phillips says one of his major challenges is navigating MetroHealth’s status as a public hospital. In the hospital transformation initiative, Phillips says appeasing public interests was one of the obstacles they had to overcome. “The challenge was convincing a very complex set of constituencies that it could be done,” he says. Despite these challenges, he finds joy in putting together viable business models and initiatives that end up being well-received in the market.
Whether as outside counsel, interim chief legal officer, or full-time chief legal officer, Phillips is proud to have worked in such a highly competitive and challenging area of public health law. “I’ve been able to provide real value here, creating a better culture of service and bringing on valuable new hires,” Phillips says. “We all feel valued here.”
Tucker Ellis congratulates Mike Phillips. His wealth of experience and leadership skills have been critical to the success of MetroHealth’s campus transformation financing. His steady guidance will continue to impact this project over the next several years as MetroHealth fundamentally transforms its campus and the surrounding neighborhood.
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