OVMC Stays Local With Wetzel’s Couch as CEO

WHEELING – Learning the ropes of the area health care industry is one thing George Couch won’t need to do when he takes over as president and chief executive officer of Ohio Valley Health Services and Education Corp.

On Thursday, the parent company of Ohio Valley Medical Center and East Ohio Regional Hospital in Martins Ferry named Couch its new CEO.

He will end a five-year tenure as CEO at Wetzel County Hospital when he assumes his duties at OVHS&E on Jan. 3.

Couch’s health care administration resume also includes work at Wheeling Hospital and New Martinsville Health Care Center.

Couch will be the hospitals’ fourth CEO since April and their third since mid-November. He takes over for interim CEO Gary Amberson, who assumed that role when former interim CEO Jan Jennings stepped down Nov. 17.

In announcing the hire Thursday, board Chairman Matthew Thomas said Couch’s experience and lifelong ties to the Ohio Valley made him the perfect candidate for the job. Couch, he stressed, is a permanent hire, bringing some stability to a position that’s been in flux since Brian K. Felici resigned in April.

Couch said he is looking forward to meeting as many staff members and volunteers as he can in the coming weeks.

“It’s going to be a bit of a challenge, but we can do it together,” Couch told the many employees who gathered to hear the announcement. “I will be here on Jan. 3, but my work starts today with you.”

According to Couch, the hospitals’ biggest hurdle going forward will be continuing to be fiscally responsible amid rising costs. He cited positive strides made to that end by American Healthcare Solutions, a firm brought in earlier this year to lead a financial turnaround for the company.

Developments concerning the economy and health care reform will be critical to the future, Couch said.

“We’ve lost many good-paying jobs with benefits, which leads to more people seeking health care through Medicare and Medicaid,” he said. “We must continue to find ways to tighten our belt to better serve our patients.”

That belt-tightening became apparent last month when OVHS&E cut 34 middle management jobs, seven months after eliminating 23 management positions in April. The hospitals together maintain a work force of 1,800.

An anonymous lender recently came forward to help the company repay nearly $5 million in employee health insurance debts owed to outside medical providers. Wheeling Hospital was among those providers, as it and several of its affiliates filed a class action lawsuit against OVHS&E in June citing failure to pay claims.

Thomas said he felt it was important to hire a local candidate. He said the board narrowed its search to three or four area residents, noting it was a “difficult decision.”

“They know the system and they know the people here,” Thomas said. “(Couch) had a demeanor about him that we thought would work well with (us).”

Thomas praised AHS for their work and for providing “a lot of great ideas” for the hospitals’ future. He said now that a permanent CEO has been hired, that firm will begin “an exit strategy” from its current role.

“It gives everybody a greater level of confidence. …Everybody has a feeling that we’re all working together with some permanence,” Thomas said of the corporation’s newfound stability at the top.