Steve Jorgensen, the new president of St. Mary’s Health System in Lewiston stands in front of  St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center on Tuesday afternoon. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

LEWISTON — Steve Jorgensen had spent little time in Maine when he interviewed to become president of St. Mary’s Health System. But in Lewiston-Auburn, the Minnesota native immediately felt at ease.

It had the same lakes and woods as the rural communities he lived and worked in. The same rich mill town history. The same faithful, resilient people.  

“It just clicked. I just loved dealing with the staff, interviewing with folks, meeting the board members.,” he said of St. Mary’s. “It was one of those (situations) where you say, ‘This just feels right.'”

Two weeks ago, it became his home. 

Jorgensen has taken over as head of St. Mary’s, replacing Chris Chekouras, who resigned in August 2017 after two years with the Lewiston hospital system. Peter Holden served as interim president for the past year while Covenant Health searched for a permanent replacement.

Jorgensen has also become senior vice president of Covenant, the Massachusetts-based Catholic health system that is St. Mary’s parent.

Jorgensen began his career in 1987, heading the personnel department at another St. Mary’s hospital, this one in Rochester, Minnesota. The hospital had recently merged with the Mayo Clinic and Rochester Methodist Hospital, creating a new hospital system.

“It was fascinating,” he said. “It’s these three different cultures coming together to say, ‘How do we bring this together to really focus on the needs of the patient?’ In fact, the statement is, ‘The needs of the patient come first.'” 

As a member of the senior leadership team for that newly merged system, Jorgensen saw firsthand the importance of collaboration.

“I just listened and I heard what was going on,” he said. “What I saw was the power of bringing groups together and teamwork. Whether it’s finance and operations or nursing and facilities, watching the administrator of the hospital bring them all together.”

Jorgensen soon moved into operations, where he served as administrator for anesthesiology, urology, trauma and other specialty departments. 

“Interestingly,” he said, “they put me in areas where there is a need to bring groups together.”

In 2006, Jorgensen took that spirit of collaboration to Jacksonville, Florida, where Mayo was combining a clinic and hospital to create an integrated medical center. He would be the clinical practice chairman.

Jacksonville was a different world from Rochester. Jorgensen got to know the community from the inside out, meeting with city leaders, getting involved with nonprofit groups and their fundraisers, talking with other medical providers.

“I got to know the competitors very well,” he said. “We kind of called them ‘frenemies’ because it’s a team sport, taking care of a community is a team sport, and how do we work together to enhance the wellness of the community?”

Jorgensen stayed for six years before becoming education administrator for Mayo. He later moved on to Minnesota’s Essentia Health, where he served as chief operating officer and then vice president for business development. He never forgot the lessons of his early days: the patient comes first, collaboration is important, community wellness takes a team.

Jorgensen left Essentia in January when the system restructured. It was a blow, but also an opportunity.

“I had an opportunity of saying, ‘Where do I want to go?'” he said.

He could have gone to a larger health system or into academic medicine, but Jorgensen seemed destined for St. Mary’s.

“It almost felt like there was a plan,” he said. “Two independent friends of mine sent my name to the recruiting firm at the same time, within a day of each other. (The recruiter) called me and said, ‘I’ve never had this happen before.'”

And while he’d spent only a little time in Maine in years past, Lewiston-Auburn immediately reminded him of home.

“I can see the richness of the history and some of the challenges that exist here,” he said. “It’s much like Duluth, Minnesota: very robust, high energy, high industry, growing community, and then the economy changes because some of the big mills, the textile mills, shut down. It felt very familiar for me.”

Just two weeks into the job, Jorgensen is still settling in. He plans to get to know the hospital and the community over the coming months.

“I’m not going to come in and say, ‘Let me tell you how you do this,'” he said. “I want to find out about the community, what are the needs.”

Part of that, he said, means reaching out to competitors here — just as he did in Jacksonville.

“There’s the need to partner and understand what you’re going to do really well and what you’re not going to do so well and how you form that partnership so patients and families have that nice bridge (to care),” he said. “It’s going to be all of us that have to be involved to address the issues.”

As Maine’s population continues to age, making hospitals more reliant on low Medicaid and Medicare payments, he believes such collaboration will become even more important. Hospitals may decide to specialize in certain care — mental health care, for example — but partner with competitors who have other specialties so patients always get the help they need.  

“I think you’re going to see health care organizations getting more focused on certain things rather than saying we can do everything for everybody,” he said.  

Jorgensen also sees St. Mary’s deepening its commitment to community wellness. That does not necessarily mean, however, that the hospital system will bring back HealthSteps or its weight management program, two community wellness programs it shut down shortly before Jorgensen arrived. 

“I don’t want to give anyone false hope. I’m always able to look and say, ‘That decision we made, was that the right one?’ but I don’t want people to say, ‘If I wait long enough, I’ll get it,'” he said. “I really want to hear from the community. What else is out there? That’s why the relationship with Bates (College) is so important, with their facilities, and the public school system and the nonprofits. Are there people who could do those things better than we could?”

Jorgensen also addressed his hospital’s recent federal violation for turning away patients who showed up in the emergency room. 

“I have been so impressed with the reaction and the commitment of the team to address the issues raised by (the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act),” he said. “I think you can tell a lot about an organization, not whether or not an event occurred, but by how they respond to it. I have been so pleased by our senior leaders, by our physicians, by our staff, by our facilities, in getting this addressed.”

Jorgensen, who is married and has four children and four grandchildren, is committed to staying in the area. He and his wife, Martha, a retired teacher, are looking for a house in the area.

He said they both look forward to being part of the community.

“There’s pride here,” he said. “I’m very excited.”

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Steve Jorgensen, the new president of St. Mary’s Health System in Lewiston. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

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