Healthcare material management enters new era

by James M. Berklan

As HCRMS dissolves, AHRMM picks up the pieces; officials gear for smooth turning of new wheels

You can almost envision the scene as a big brother stretching comforting arms around the shoulders of a smaller, slumping sibling.

United, they will be happier, a stronger family. Outsiders will take notice and give them more respect. Members within the family will not have to choose sides by forming an allegiance with one side or the other.

At least that’s the view from the top about the dissolution of the Health Care Resource Management Society (HCRMS). In recent years the Association for Healthcare Resource and Materials Management (AHRMM) had dwarfed it in terms of funding, membership, and influence.

Emboldened by some of the top thinkers in the business, HCRMS had continued as a proud, independent entity, sticking true to its roots as a promoter of education and certification programs. Eventually, however, its leaders decided it could not continue running in the red financially, especially with member involvement dropping.

Cincinnati-based HCRMS will expire as a corporation July 1. Its active existence, however, ceased April 1, about 10 days after members received notification of the dissolution in a letter from the executive board. Capping a yearlong period of secretive meetings, the AHRMM board immediately recognized all existing HCRMS memberships and certified personnel for the length of their previously planned terms.

“For the profession of material management in healthcare, this will be one of the most major things to have happened in the last 20 years,” said Judy Newberry, a past HCRMS president. “The two of these groups coming together, and in an amicable way, will really be remarkable. E-commerce and all those other things are coming along, but those aren’t there yet. This is there.”

Win-win situation

The new entity is the byproduct of absorption – not a merger, officials stressed – of the smaller group’s membership into the bigger group. In addition, Chicago-based AHRMM added two seats to its executive board for at least three years. The last two HCRMS presidents, Afshin Fatholahi and Michael McNeal, will occupy those seats. The two were to get their first full taste of AHRMM chair quarterbacking at their first board meeting, the first weekend of May in Washington.

In addition, Steve Goetz, formerly HCRMS’ executive director and a past president, was hired on a one-year contract as a consultant to AHRMM Executive Director Deborah Sprindzunas.

“Being in purchasing, I like to work within a win-win situation at all times, and I’ve never been in a win-win situation like this,” said McNeal, a purchasing assistant at the Shriners Burns Hospital, Cincinnati. “I told (both association’s leaders) you’ve got to understand this is very, very difficult for me, being one of HCRMS’ founding members. But I wouldn’t be sitting here if I didn’t think the time was right.”

By many accounts, the time was overdue. From a height of about 1,300 members in the late 1980s, membership had officially fallen to 500 – some believe closer to half that — at the time of dissolution.

In addition, the society had not been able to pay all its bills for several years, McNeal said. The group relied largely on the generosity of Goetz, who wrote off debts owed him several times, according to McNeal.

“There was a time that Steve and I said if there was even one person who wanted it (HCRMS), we’d keep it going, but there’s a point where we couldn’t ask our employers to subsidize what we were doing,” McNeal explained. “There’s a point when you have to ask what benefit we were giving our members.”

Though experts praised the educational content at HCRMS’ last annual conference program, last October in Chicago, attendance was a problem. McNeal said there were fewer than 40 paid members, and just a fraction were from the Chicago area, traditionally an HCRMS stronghold.

“That was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back, from a financial standpoint,” McNeal said. “We ran a tight ship but we’d been playing catch-up for years. A clause in our by-laws said we could dissolve at the discretion of the executive committee. Only we knew how true the finances were. We just didn’t burden our membership with that.”

One voice

Now, the profession may be headed in a better direction than ever before, said Renee Landry, the former AHRMM president who steered much of the coming-together activity.

“It’s a great opportunity to raise the bar of the profession because we do have a single voice,” she said. “Healthcare is very volatile right now, the supply chain as a whole. This will help us tell what we want.”

Added Goetz: “As an industry, material managers have done a lousy job of promoting themselves. Now we’ll be able to say this is the certification program for the profession. Most hospital administrators look at material mangers and don’t consider them in the professional staff.”

Unity among healthcare supply chain procurement managers had been attempted numerous times before. HCRMS had notable meetings with the International Association of Central Service Healthcare Material Management in Long Beach, CA, in 1989. Various discussions were held with both the National Association of Purchasing Managers and AHRMM. Each time, something got in the way.

What made this attempt different? Beyond HCRMS’ financial and enrollment woes, personalities weren’t allowed to clash this time, officials from both organizations agreed. They also held secret meetings for more than a year to keep outside attention and pressures off the participants.

“Several years ago this was talked about, and there were some significant egos in place, and it just didn’t pan out,” Landry said.

McNeal said his attitude changed since the previous talks.

“I will admit I was saying I will not let the AHA tell us what to do,” he said. “There was a communications breakdown last time. What I see now is AHA doesn’t tell them so much what to do. That’s one of the things that kind of shocked us.”

Landry called the key

McNeal, and others, said Landry was the catalyst that kept everyone moving in the same direction.

“If it hadn’t been for her insisting we continue to talk … I don’t know if it was her personality or what,” McNeal said. “That’s why we made her coordinator of all the meetings. She kept the ball rolling, even after she was president. Once your aren’t president, you can become tired.”

Landry made the traditional olive-branch phone call from new AHRMM president to HCRMS leadership when she took office in January 2000. But then she kept at it, first pushing for meetings among leaders to discuss educational and credentialing opportunities. 
She then invited Goetz to meet secretly with the AHRMM board during its annual convention in Tampa in August. An eloquent speaker and writer, Goetz frankly outlined both groups’ strong points and weaknesses, and he won admirers. Then in October, during the poorly attended HCRMS Chicago conference, Landry secretly met with the HCRMS board, and more bonds were forged.

Numerous e-mails and conference calls between the groups’ leaders ensued. By the time top leaders from each group met face-to-face Feb. 1 in Dallas, all the building blocks were in place. In attendance, according to a participant, were McNeal, Fatholahi, and Goetz from HCRMS, and Landry, current President Patrick Wirfel, President-elect Al Cook, Sprindzunas and board member Terry Cox from AHRMM.

During a six-hour meeting, the groups compared mission statements, education programs, certification programs, infrastructures, and more. And those present realized the similarities were remarkable, according to several participants.

AHRMM leaders agreed to honor HCRMS members as paid AHRMM members, a key step according to McNeal. Then, they agreed to grandfather in HCRMS’ certification recognition for a five-year period while the process is reviewed. In addition, they granted past HCRMS presidents lifetime membership. They also added the two new AHRMM board seats.

All that remained was proper approval by the AHRMM board, which came in early March, and legal checks by both groups’ lawyers. On March 22, HCRMS members were notified by mail of the group’s dissolution and their new status as AHRMM members.

Looking for intimacy

The immediate future for AHRMM includes a revamped website and renewed focus on education and certification processes. Intent on keeping every member in close touch with presenters and experts, HCRMS leaders are hopeful AHRMM will add some smaller group, “town hall” style meetings to its educational offerings.

The annual conference, July 29 through Aug. 1 in Denver, is expected to draw hundreds of members and will be the first real mixing point for the two groups’ members. (There were fewer than 50 crossover members before the absorption, McNeal said.)

Some past HCRMS stalwarts were reluctant to see their one-time pride and joy abandoned. But they also unanimously agreed there was little reason not to join ranks with AHRMM, which came off as particularly gracious during unity talks.

Opinions against the dissolution and subsequent absorption appeared scarce. The one who came the closest to voicing a negative was past AHRMM President Landry.

“It’s the loss of a great organization,” Landry said. “It’s been around for many years and done some great things for the members. To lose that is definitely a loss. But the offset is what the industry is gaining.”






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