As Retirement Looms, Freedman Reflects on Time as Einstein CEO
Barry R. Freedman, who is retiring on December 31, has accomplished many things in his 18 years as CEO and president at Einstein Healthcare Network. One of those accomplishments was the result of what he kiddingly calls “a fire sale.”
Freedman had been at Einstein for less than a month when a fire alarm went off at 2 a.m. in the apartment building where he was staying. “My wife and I tracked down 12 floors to the lobby,” he recalls. Another resident who’d also been ousted from sleep was a healthcare executive he knew who’d also just moved to Philadelphia to work for a for-profit company that needed to sell a few hospitals.
While the Fire Department checked the building, and disgruntled neighbors huddled around waiting to be allowed to return to their apartments, the two executives began negotiating Einstein’s purchase of Rolling Hill Hospital. The result was that MossRehab, the Network’s nationally ranked physical rehabilitation facility, found a brand new home at what is now Einstein Medical Center Elkins Park.
Finding better accommodations for MossRehab was one of the top goals Freedman set when he came to Philadelphia from New York. It’s one of the many visible monuments to his success, along with the construction and opening of Einstein Medical Center Montgomery in 2012. “Einstein Montgomery was a spectacular move for our institution,” Freedman says. “The opportunity to acquire the land and build the first new hospital in Pennsylvania in the 21st Century was fabulous.”
We, Not Me, Culture
But the concrete reminders of Freedman’s leadership are only part of his legacy. What he values above all is the culture he fostered, the atmosphere of family, the ethos of beneficence. “What I am most proud of is the ‘we, not me’ culture cultivated and nurtured at Einstein–of our caring, compassionate, dedicated employees devoted to our patients, communities and family of workers, all trying to make this a better Einstein and a better world.”
“He created such an amazing culture of cooperation and camaraderie,” says Steven Sivak, MD, President of Einstein Physicians Philadelphia. “I met with him weekly for the past five or six years, and it was very uncommon for me not to learn something from him. I consider him a friend.”
Over the years, Freedman invited employees to lunch “behind closed doors” to find out what was going on at the hospital that wasn’t bubbling to the top.
He had a personal word with everyone he met–connecting with a nurse who was treating him during a medical emergency, for instance, over the fact that both of them were born in Brooklyn and had ancestors from Russia. He often got his own lunch in the cafeteria, and if he saw someone do something nice for a patient, he paid for their lunch, too.
Einstein’s institutional rachmunis–the Yiddish word for compassion–was a natural fit for Freedman. He became sensitized as a boy growing up in a working class neighborhood when he was repeatedly beaten and harassed by anti-Semitic bullies. “I’ve always had a strong sense of injustice which I believe is a consequence of the anti-Semitism I experienced,” he says. His social consciousness was further developed as an undergraduate at a politically radical college campus during the social upheaval of the 60’s.
“It was a very influential period for me,” Freedman says. “I can remember coming out of school and realizing I didn’t want to just go into a job that produces widgets. I wanted to do something that makes communities better and decided there were significant opportunities in healthcare.”
Sense of Mission
He became a top hospital executive in Manhattan at the unheard of age of 33. Many years later, when he was recruited to Einstein, he agreed to be interviewed just to “practice my job interview skills.” He had no intention of working or living in Philadelphia.
But the sense of mission he encountered among board members and management impressed him. “I found a sense of family and purpose more than at other places,” he says.
Freedman accepted the job with a few initial goals in mind: put the institution on a stable financial footing after a $20 million operating loss; infuse the culture with “collaboration, openness and transparency;” and improve outdated MossRehab facilities.
His interest in rehab was personal. In 1988, his wife was felled by a bacterial infection and spent years in outpatient rehab relearning basic physical functions. “I watched people face disabilities after strokes or paralysis,” Freedman says. “It was really remarkable to me how they could bring people back to functional life, and it had a lasting impact on me.”
And then came the fortuitous fire alarm.
Freedman has been the steady hand that guided Einstein through the upheaval of the Affordable Care Act and the devastation of the COVID-19 epidemic, two of the most epic events in health care in recent history. Add to that the struggle to obtain equitable health care for Einstein’s disadvantaged patient population, find ways to stay financially afloat, resolve the day-to-day crises that inevitably arise in a hospital–and one can understand why he often had sleepless nights.
“I lose sleep when we have to make significant decisions,” Freedman says. “I lose sleep when things go wrong. I lose sleep over confrontation and tension within the organization. I lose sleep when I make a tough decision and wonder for some period of time whether it’s the right one.”
Golf and Grandchildren
Freedman says he won’t miss that part of being CEO, or the relentless and constant demands on his time. He’s allotted himself six months of post-retirement time to pursue the other loves of his life: golf and his grandchildren. He’ll remain a consultant to Einstein on special projects after Jan. 1 and remain for now in Philadelphia.
Indeed, the only apparent lapse in his conversion to complete Philadelpian is his continued devotion to New York sports teams. And on Jewish holidays, he has bagels and lox imported from New York. “They’re better there,” he says, somewhat recklessly.
Freedman delayed his retirement for two years to facilitate the merger with Jefferson Health, which unfortunately is still pending in the courts. He remains optimistic that the Jefferson merger will happen, saying “The merger makes sense for Einstein and Jefferson and it preserves all the goodness we bring to the community.”
Freedman may be leaving Einstein but clearly his vision and legacy will endure. As put by incoming interim CEO Ken Levitan: “What’s inspiring to me about Barry Freedman’s philosophy–which I emulate–is that it’s about doing the right thing. It’s about making the best possible decision for Einstein and for the community as a whole. We exist in service to our mission.”