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New leader at Carney named

Codman health center chief expands his vision

By Kay Lazar and Cara Bayles
Globe Staff | Globe Correspondent / January 14, 2011

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Thirty-six years after he founded one of Boston’s most vibrant community health centers from the basement of a largely abandoned library, Bill Walczak is stepping down as chief executive of the Codman Square Health Center to become president of Carney Hospital in Dorchester.

Health care advocates yesterday said they hoped the appointment of such a visionary leader signaled a strong commitment to community-based care by Cerberus Capital Management, the New York private equity company that last year bought Carney and its five-sister hospitals in the struggling Caritas Christi Health Care system.

The sale had sparked concerns last year among some advocates who feared that the for-profit company — which has a track record of acquiring underperforming companies, cutting jobs, and selling them at a profit — might not have a long-term commitment to the hospital chain.

“Having someone like Bill, who is identified with the community, is a huge lift for community health centers,’’ said James W. Hunt, Jr. president and chief executive of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers.

“He is willing to take a risk in meeting needs where others fear to tread,’’ Hunt said.

A New Jersey native and son of factory workers, Walczak, 56, moved to Massachusetts more than 40 years ago on a scholarship to Boston University. He met his future wife, a Dorchester native, in the first month of school and married her 8 months later. The two soon left Boston in the early 1970s to do community organizing work in a nationwide lettuce boycott that brought attention to the plight of farm workers.

They came back to a Dorchester community torn apart by racial strife and court-ordered school busing. Just 20 years old, Walczak envisioned a health center that could help bring disparate factions together. A committee was formed in 1974, and five years later Codman Square Health Center opened.

“It was a tumultuous time, and to us, the health center was a symbol of hope in a community that had literally been burned down,’’ Walczak said yesterday.

The center has grown significantly since then and has become nationally recognized for its holistic approach, which involves everything from physicians writing prescriptions for patients to buy fruits and vegetables at farmers’ markets to opening what is believed to be the first-in-the-nation charter school within a community health center, the Codman Academy Charter School.

Walczak said his move to Carney Hospital is much like going home again because he worked closely with hospital leaders 36 years ago as he formed the Codman Square health center.

“It’s a Dorchester institution, and, for me, it allows me to do what I can to make sure the Carney Hospital thrives,’’ Walczak said. “The health care system is undergoing massive changes right now, and my job is to make sure the Dorchester community is well served by the system.’’

The news of Walczak’s new role comes days after Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s state of the city address, in which he announced the launch of Neighbor Care, an initiative that focuses on increasing the use of community health centers to provide expanded hours of operation and more services to the neighborhoods.

“Billy is Mr. Community Health,’’ Menino said yesterday. “By him going to Carney, it brings his background in community health, and it will be a great asset to the community. But it will be a tremendous loss at Codman.’’

Matt Fishman, vice president for community health at Partners HealthCare, the parent company of Brigham and Women’s and Massachusetts General hospitals, said Walczak has been an “exceptionally talented leader’’ who has built a strong team at the Codman that is likely to continue his cutting-edge approach.

“It is relatively unusual in the Boston area for someone to become the chief executive officer at a hospital whose last job was CEO of a community health center,’’ Fishman said. “It speaks to Bill’s track record at Codman Square as an innovator in improving community health.’’

A spokesman for the Cerberus affiliate that now manages Carney Hospital and the rest of the former Caritas health network, said the choice of Walczak was the company’s way of showing Dorchester residents that it is serious about community health care, especially at a time when the health industry is undergoing major changes.

“Having a guy like Bill Walczak is a pretty clear signal that our goal is to be about better serving the community,’’ said Chris Murphy, spokesman for Steward Healthcare.

Kay Lazar can be reached at klazar@globe.com.