Margin notes Featured

9:57am EDT July 22, 2002

Michael D. Roberts, one corporate communicator who knows how to navigate a mine field, has left Orion Consulting Inc. to become a vice president at Watt, Roop & Co.

Orion, which creates management software for hospitals and health insurers, acquired Roberts when it bought the health practice at William Silverman & Co. PR firm. (Silverman, now retired, was the pugilistic PR guy who lost in one round to 60 MinutesMike Wallace in an ambush interview about Columbia/HCA’s failed purchase of Silverman’s main client, then Blue Cross of Ohio.)

Today, the Silverman firm is gone and an embattled Columbia/HCA has retreated from Cleveland (see next item). How Roberts managed to be in the middle of all that and come out smelling like fresh laundry demonstrates why he has the reputation as one of the best-connected PR guys in town.

In his first life, Roberts was a journalist, reporting from Vietnam, the Mideast and the White House before doing a fiery 2-year stint as city editor of The Plain Dealer. He spent 17 years as the editor who put the first generation of Cleveland Magazine on the map, and then took an editing job in Boston. He joined Silverman on his return in ’94.

At Watt, Roop — a full-service PR/marketing agency (which does work for SBN) — Roberts says he’ll put to use his knowledge of the media, health care and the community.

Builder’s Square only lasted a few months in Northeast Ohio under an onslaught from Home Depot and Lowe’s.

Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp., the nationwide consolidator of the hospital business, lasted longer than that in direct competition with the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals Health System (UHHS) — but not much.

To be fair, Columbia/HCA never had a strong foothold. After failing to buy the former Blue Cross at a fire-sale price, it settled for partial ownership of St. John West Shore Hospital, St. Vincent Charity Hospital and St. Luke’s Medical Center. All three — known collectively as Caritas — are respected more for their charitable mission and ethics than for their financial returns. It made for an interesting pairing with the investor-owned Columbia/HCA, which stands accused of overcharging Uncle Sam on Medicaid claims.

Columbia/HCA has sold its share in these hospitals — plus a fourth in Canton — to UHHS for $65 million.

The most understated benefit for UHHS may be that the deal includes Ohio Health Choice, a Cleveland-based PPO that claims to be one of the state’s largest.

That should address UHHS’s main weakness in its battle with the Cleveland Clinic — a strong referral system of doctors to help fill hospital beds. UHHS’s own HMO, QualChoice, has constantly struggled for market share.