New head of St. Vincent’s ‘energized’ about future

BRIDGEPORT—Bill Jennings likes to see energy in the room. So the new president of St. Vincent’s Medical Center and Hartford Healthcare’s Fairfield Region, made sure there was “energizing upbeat music” before he arrived at his first staff meeting.

For this particular occasion, he chose vintage 1973 rock—“Frankenstein” by the Edgar Winter Group, which is ranked among the best instrumentals of all time…and guaranteed to get your blood pumping.

As Jennings, 53, explains it: “I like energy, and I get my energy from people. I can’t stand walking into a room and having people waiting for the meeting to start, so I pipe in rock music, leading up to the start of the meeting. I think I shocked some people that day.”

That was St. Vincent’s introduction to William M. Jennings, who previously was president & CEO of Reading Hospital, the flagship of Tower Health system in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Closer to home, he is known for his eight years as CEO of Bridgeport Hospital and Executive Vice President of Yale New Haven Health.

Returning to the area with his wife Kristin, Jennings says, “I feel like Rip Van Winkle. I’ve been asleep for three years, but it’s so comfortable and comforting to be moving back to Fairfield County. Kristin and I are very happy about it. We were here for nine years and starting to get roots, but we uprooted for the right reasons. Hartford has such a compelling vision and mission in Fairfield County that it was a no-brainer to come back home.”

In 2019, Hartford HealthCare purchased St. Vincent’s and its operations from Ascension for $250 million, making it the second-largest hospital in the system after the 867-bed Hartford Hospital. It also made a commitment to capital improvements as part of the system’s entry into Southwestern Connecticut. Jennings says this investment will continue to extend the mission and vision of Hartford Healthcare in the region.

St. Vincent’s, which has more than 3,500 associates, includes a licensed 473-bed community teaching hospital, and a 76-bed inpatient psychiatric facility in Westport, a multi-specialty provider group and St. Vincent’s Special Needs Services.

Jennings says this means there is more access to healthcare and more experts in their fields that go beyond the walls of the hospital.

“St. Vincent’s is not only growing the number of providers and areas of expertise but is also expanding geographically, with medical office buildings in Westport, Stamford and Milford,” he said.

Recruitment of physicians was a key priority last year. New providers supported the goal of growing Hartford HealthCare’s institutes in the region, which include the Cancer, Ayer Neuroscience, Connecticut Orthopaedic, Behavioral Health Network, Tallwood Kidney and Urology, and Heart & Vascular Institutes.

“In just one year, St. Vincent’s successfully integrated on many levels and has made great strides toward becoming a destination center and providing new access points in the communities we serve,” Jennings said.

In addition to physician offices, there is a new surgery center in Milford; a Spine Wellness Center in Westport; a home healthcare affiliation; a diagnostic imaging partnership, and outpatient physical therapy.

“We’ve done a lot of recruiting, we have new access points, new expertise and a rigor about engaging the community and being present in the community,” Jennings says. “Frankly, that’s one of the reasons I’m sitting here…to be the face and the engagement with the community.”

Having Hartford Healthcare enter the market with Bridgeport Hospital will benefit patients in the region, he says. “Bridgeport is a great hospital and with Hartford Healthcare in the region, healthcare can only be better. I’m looking forward to bringing more expertise and points of access to the community, which is the right thing.”

At the same time, Jennings says Hartford Healthcare “is going to celebrate and keep the Catholic heritage of this hospital forever.”

Deacon Patrick Toole, episcopal delegate for administration of the Diocese of Bridgeport, is on the hospital’s board, and Jennings recently met with Bishop Frank J. Caggiano. In addition, longtime employee Bill Hoey serves as vice president of mission integration, who is responsible for ensuring compliance with Catholic healthcare doctrine and that the hospital adheres to the Church’s ethical and religious directives.

Hoey says St.Vincent’s Catholic identity is firmly established. There is morning and evening prayer, daily Mass that is broadcast into the patients’ room, the services of full-time priest chaplains and a Catholic deacon who serves as manager of spiritual care.

In recent weeks, hospital staff have gone to parishes in the diocese to administer COVID-19 vaccinations in addition to holding the sixth “Medical Mission at Home” to provide free healthcare and support services at the Thomas Merton Center in Bridgeport.

St. Vincent’s also has a food distribution on the last Friday of the month for people in need, and a free pharmacy in Bridgeport, which fills prescriptions and gives away medication to people without insurance.

“We continue to be committed to the local community and the underserved,” Jennings said. “That’s not going to change. That’s our mission and the right thing to do.”

Jennings, himself, is no stranger to the culture of a Catholic hospital. For six years, his boss was Sr. Mary Jean Ryan, a Franciscan Sister of Mary, when he was president of SSM St. Mary’s Health Center in St. Louis, a 582-bed teaching hospital that is part of the SSM Health System.

“She was the founder of SSM Health,” he said. “She’s an icon in health care and made a significant impression on my career.”

Jennings also served as president of the SSM St. Louis Heart Institute, which served six hospitals. He has held executive positions with BayCare Health System in Florida and the Cookeville Regional Medical Center in Cookeville, Tenn. He received his bachelor of science degree from Miami University and his master’s degree in hospital administration from Ohio State University.

St. Vincent’s has had an illustrious history defined by its mission to the under-served, Hoey says.

In 1903 in Bridgeport, Conn., if you were not a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, you could not go to the only hospital in the city, so a group of doctors approached the pastor of St. Patrick’s Church and asked him to open a hospital that would treat everybody, he said.

Father James Nihill traveled to Emmitsburg, Maryland, and enlisted the services of Sister Laura Eckenrode and six young Daughters of Charity who came to Bridgeport and in two years raised $250,000 to build St. Vincent’s Hospital.

One of every six patients in America is in a Catholic hospital, and they exist because of dedicated women religious, who from the mid-to-late 1800s started to build a network of Catholic hospitals across America.

“Catholic healthcare exists to take care of the poor, the needy, the vulnerable and the least among us…and to live out the Gospel of Matthew,” Hoey said.