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Not even the mattress pads were spared: An inside look at a top hospital’s struggle to cut costs

Brigham and Women's Hospital is confronting daunting financial and marketplace forces, which are buffeting academic medical centers across the U.S.

BOSTON — In only 18 months on the job, the chief operating officer of Brigham and Women’s Hospital had weathered relentless and unforeseen events that battered the elite Harvard-affiliated medical center.

A record snowfall had paralyzed Boston and stanched admissions for a month. Installation of a $400 million electronic health record system had obscured a fall-off in patient volume. And the hospital had lost $24 million preparing for a threatened nurses strike.

But by July 2016, with the hospital’s finances improving, Dr. Ron Walls was upbeat. “I had this moment,” he recalled, “when I said, they can’t possibly throw anything more at me now.”

The moment didn’t last.

The hospital’s new chief financial officer poked his head in Walls’s office. “Got a quick minute?” he asked.

He was there to sound an alarm: In the 2017 fiscal year that was about to start, he told Walls, operating income wouldn’t cover the hospital’s expenses; 2018 would be in the red as well.

“Chris, how do the numbers come back up?” Walls said he asked. The CFO, Christopher Dunleavy, was ready with a solution: Cut $50 million from the hospital’s $2.6 billion in annual spending.

That conversation set in motion an unprecedented cost-cutting drive that would affect the jobs of hundreds of the hospital’s 18,000 employees and reach into every corner of the institution — even overriding nurses’ choice of mattress pads. It also led to an aggressive push to boost revenues 4 percent a year.

Over the past three months, the Brigham provided STAT unusual access to meetings of its top management and internal deliberations and documents. This inside look shows how one of the nation’s leading hospitals is confronting

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