Longtime county pediatrician Mary Rimsza will deal with college health care.
Longtime county pediatrician Mary Rimsza will deal with college health care.

What's Up, Doc?

Dr. Mary Rimsza, a pediatrician and leading advocate for abused and neglected children, has ended her careerlong affiliation with the county hospital and moved on to an older group of patients.

Rimsza resigned from her job as head of MedPro, the group that provides doctors for Maricopa Medical Center, and started last week as the new director of student health at Arizona State University.

"I'm very excited to be here," she says. "It's a great job for me."

ASU has one of the largest student health centers in the country. That post had been held by an interim director since the June 1998 retirement of Dr. Dale Bowen.

With 48,000 students, ASU is larger than many cities and towns, Rimsza says, so overseeing 100 employees who care for the population's health needs will be a challenge. Prescribing birth control pills, tending to students' flu symptoms and such may seem like a stretch from her previous role on the front lines of the fight for children's health. But Rimsza says it's a welcome change, a natural outgrowth of her interest (and specialty) in adolescent medicine, and a job that will allow her to remain active in the community.

While there is talk that she was fired from MedPro -- even Rimsza has heard it -- she says that is not the case. Rimsza says she stepped down from the CEO post on September 7, the day her brother Skip was reelected mayor of Phoenix. On October 15, she says, she submitted her resignation from the organization so she could take the ASU job. She says she left on good terms and had no real reason for leaving MedPro except that she wanted the ASU post.

Confirming the details of her departure is difficult. One insider says she was definitely fired and unceremoniously escorted from her office. And hospital officials won't say anything, referring inquiries to MedPro. An employee of MedPro says no one there will comment on Rimsza's leaving. Matt Hatfield, who became acting president and CEO when Rimsza left, did not return phone calls from New Times.

Rimsza, 51, has worked at Maricopa Medical Center since 1974, when she began her medical internship there. She had a long, fiercely loyal relationship with the hospital. But she sums it up in a run-on, yadda-yadda-yadda-type sentence that helps explain why she moved on to her new job: "I finished my training there, stayed on board, first as an attending physician, chief of various things and then associate chairman [of pediatrics] and then chairman and then CEO and after that, there's nothing left to do."

MedPro, a group of doctors that contracts to treat patients and teach medical residents in the Maricopa Integrated Health System, was formed in 1994. Rimsza served as the group's vice president, then became president and CEO in June 1998. Her administrative responsibilities covered more than 400 employees, including 230 physicians who staff the 541-bed county hospital, its psychiatric annex and 13 county-run family health centers.

During her career, Rimsza has been an outspoken and highly visible pediatric expert. It is Rimsza who chairs the state Department of Health Services' Child Fatality Review Team, which announces each year the number and type of childhood deaths and emphasizes how many of them could have been prevented. (The next report is due out November 15.) It is Rimsza who co-chairs the statewide Healthy Children Arizona committee of the Children's Action Alliance, which lobbies for better public policy to protect children and succeeded in getting the KidsCare insurance program passed. It is Rimsza who speaks out on tough child abuse cases and is quoted nationally as the spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. She has a reputation as a no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is doctor, a quality that makes her an effective lobbyist but irritates some people.

In 1996, she wrote an Opinions piece for the Arizona Republic ripping the county's management of Maricopa Medical Center and begging for a change in how the hospital was run. She accused the county of "financial incompetence" and said the county bureaucracy was like "a malignant tumor" that had "sucked the life out of the hospital." She called for "drastic surgery" if the hospital was to survive.

Maricopa County now contracts with Quorum Health Resources of Tennessee to manage the $650 million health system anchored by the hospital. (MedPro is a local group that provides doctors for the system and contracts separately with the county.) Since taking over in 1997, Quorum has turned a $13 million annual deficit into a $14.6 million annual profit for the system. The county recently signed a new five-year contract with Quorum, which includes two years of guaranteed management service and three one-year options to renew. Rimsza praises the changes made by Quorum as well as the management of Mark Hillard, CEO of the Maricopa health system.

"It makes me feel much better about leaving my baby, because I think they are doing a very good job." she says.

One of her final acts as CEO of MedPro was to negotiate a new contract with the county on behalf of its doctors. The $34 million three-year agreement represents an increase of more than 7 percent over the previous contract, she says, and includes a two-year guarantee that the dollars won't dwindle. "In medical groups today, that's pretty remarkable," Rimsza says.

Observers say that achievement, lauded by MedPro just days before Rimsza left her CEO post, made her departure all the more puzzling. The change apparently had nothing to do with the federal investigation into possible Medicare fraud at the county hospital. New Times reported in May that a grand jury was looking into alleged billing fraud in which doctors may have charged for work performed by resident medical students. Rimsza and Hillard say they haven't heard anything more about the investigation. And both say nothing improper was done.

Rimsza, who has a 21-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son, says she looks forward to being able to treat patients in her new job, something she couldn't fit in while acting as administrator at MedPro. Rimsza also says she wants to educate students about the importance of taking control of their own health. She believes this is a key time to reach them, when they are responsibile for their own medical needs for the first time. Being your own health-care advocate is a critical ability in these times of limited health-care availability and managed care, Rimsza believes.

Rimsza says she also plans to continue with her myriad other community responsibilities, which include serving as medical director of the Phoenix Job Corps, teaching at the Mayo Graduate School of Medicine and the University of Arizona College of Medicine, heading a new Citizen's Review Committee for Children's Protective Services and working with Citizens of Arizona to Prevent Gun Violence, a new coalition hoping to prevent accidental shootings involving children.

Carol Kamin, executive director of the Children's Action Alliance, says she knew only "vaguely" about Rimsza's job change. She adds that she has been out of town and hasn't had a chance to speak with her about it. Kamin says Rimsza has been an "invaluable" voice for children. She hopes Rimsza will remain involved in children's issues regardless of "whatever reason she left [her old job] and wherever she landed."

Kamin says Rimsza is a particularly effective advocate for children's health because she speaks with experience about real cases and does it in a way that cuts through the politics. When asked to testify before the Legislature on issues, Kamin says, Rimsza not only agrees to cooperate, but honors her commitment even when hearings are postponed and rescheduled over and over again.

"That's from the gut," Kamin says. "That's from knowing it's the right thing to do."

Contact Laura Laughlin at her online address: llaughlin@newtimes.com


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