President and chief executive officer
9200 W. Wisconsin Ave., Wauwatosa
In April, Wauwatosa-based Froedtert Health and Neenah-based ThedaCare announced plans to merge into one health system. After the merger is complete, Cathy Jacobson, Froedtert’s president and chief executive officer, will initially assume the role of CEO while Dr. Imran Andrabi, ThedaCare president and CEO, will serve as president. After a six-month transition period, Jacobson will retire from the organization after more than a decade at the helm. BizTimes Milwaukee reporter Ashley Smart recently spoke with Jacobson about the deal and her forthcoming retirement. The following portions of their conversation are edited for length and clarity.
How does this merger make sense for both organizations?
“It was October of 2022 when we announced our quaternary agreement with ThedaCare and then our joint venture development in Oshkosh and Fond du Lac. At that time, we’d been meeting with ThedaCare for over a year just in terms of opportunities, and we worked on those ideas. As we got a chance to know each other through those conversations, what we recognized was that our conversations were very easy in terms of being able to come to an agreement because we were aligned on so many thoughts. It wasn’t just about academic medicine, which is incredibly important, or it wasn’t just about expansion. What we really aligned around was, number one, a joint vision for how we think health care needs to change.”
What does transforming health care mean to both organizations?
“I think first and foremost, it’s recognition that health care doesn’t work for most people today. What I mean by that is you may have access to health care, but maybe you have to wait too long for an appointment, or it’s too clunky for you to schedule, or you don’t understand how to navigate the system. So, maybe once you get in, you get great care but the experiences and the handoffs and the communication and all those types of things are not where they need to be. Transforming means recognizing what we do today is not what people want it to be and not what it needs to be. Then, when you’re in that mindset, you’re immediately thinking of those things that we need to challenge.”
How does this merger benefit the more rural communities served by ThedaCare?
“You can’t deliver health care in a rural setting the same way that you do in Appleton or Milwaukee because there just isn’t the same access to brick and mortar locations. People are on a different schedule, their lives revolve around different things than people in the city, so first and foremost it’s about listening to the community and how health care has worked for them and then asking what tools we can bring. Is it virtual health? Well, we know there’s broadband issues still in some of our rural areas. How do we help bring that to them? How do we connect them to the best of academic medicine?”
Is this truly a merger, or is it an acquisition?
“My legal counsel would tell you it’s neither. That is why we’re actually calling it a combination. In not-for-profit health care, you literally can take two organizations and just put them together. And that is exactly what we’re doing here. There’s no money exchanged, we’re just taking all of the resources of ThedaCare, all the resources of Froedtert Health and putting them together into a combined organization. Really, what that tells you about how the organization will be run in the future is the governance statement that we put out on the board, which will be composed of representatives of both organizations.”
How did you make the decision to retire following the merger?
“I’m not retiring for 15 months. There’s a long trajectory yet. It’s probably another nine months until we close the transaction. We’re still Froedtert Health and ThedaCare, and we have to continue to do the same things we do every day. Once we’re combined, there will be a six-month transition period where we can bring the organizations together and I will leave.
“My decision on this has been building. Most people who know me know that I’ve never had the intent to work all the way to 65. I’m involved in a number of different things, health care and non-health care related on a national level, and I wanted to do something else eventually. When you feel good about how you can hand off your organization and you meet a leader who is aligned with your vision, you kind of marry the two things up together. To be transparent, I’m 60, so it’s not that far off from my original long-term thinking. It’s just a natural transition.”
Can you share more details on your post-retirement plans?
“I’m on a couple of different boards already, and I have to do that in my spare time on top of my normal job. I want to stay on those boards and maybe look at some other opportunities as well – nothing beyond what I’m doing already. I want to do that and spend some more time with my family.”
Will Froedtert and ThedaCare pursue other acquisitions in the future?
“I really can’t say right now. We’ve got to stay focused on the one deal we have right now. I will tell you we think we are creating something unique in the state in terms of being Wisconsin based and Wisconsin led, and we hope once we get it put together that it is something that attracts partners who want to join us and the work we’re doing. We are building something for the future that we hope others will see as attractive.”
Are there any worries about getting regulatory approval?
“I would say we’re in an environment where health care combinations are really scrutinized, and we just have to be extraordinarily respectful of that. At the same time, we think we’re bringing two health systems together that don’t really overlap. The only sharing of patients we have are the patients that get referred out of ThedaCare’s geography to come down and access complex care they can’t normally get. We think that is actually the strength of our merger. We’re optimistic and think we’re doing this for the right reasons.”
When were employees notified of the merger?
“We started telling everyone first thing (the morning of April 11). We started telling our teams probably about an hour before the press conference. We were very careful with our messages because first and foremost, we need all of our staff to come take care of patients every single day. That’s what we want them focused on right now. The messages were nothing’s changing, even when we come together and combine.”
Any details you can share about the company’s new name and headquarters?
“I can tell you for sure the headquarters will be in Wisconsin. That’s quite frankly becoming more unique among health care systems. We really, really have not talked about plans beyond that. In terms of the name, we decided both names will live on.”