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While his office walls are bare, his plate is full as the Health System's new chief. The walls of Peter Traber's new penthouse office overlooking Franklin Field in the Penn Tower Hotel are bare. Nailholes can be seen where the diplomas and degrees of his predecessor once hung. In fact, just about the only thing in the office that Traber has added is photos of his children. The 44-year-old Traber understands that there is an asterisk next to his title as Chief Executive Officer of the University of Pennsylvania Health System and dean of the School of Medicine. The asterisk reads, "interim." But for Traber, about the only thing that evinces that asterisk is his bare office. "I cannot act like an interim. Everything I would do as permanent dean, I will do as interim dean," Traber said in an interview yesterday, adding that he would be interested in taking on the job on a longterm basis if asked by University President Judith Rodin. It has been three weeks since William Kelley was dismissed from his decade-long tenure at the helm of UPHS, the $1.9 billion juggernaut that in recent years went astray, leaving deficits in the hundreds of millions of dollars in its wake. Chosen by Rodin to succeed Kelley -- at least temporarily -- Traber is charged with plugging the hemorrhage. And quickly. "The institution recognizes that I have to act as the CEO and dean and not as a placekeeper," Traber explained. "Because we don't have time for that." Traber, who served as chair of the Department of Medicine before taking the position, already has clear ideas about what he must do to right UPHS. And one of the first things he set out to do as CEO was to assure faculty and staff about the transition. "I spend most of my time communicating to different stakeholders within the School of Medicine and the Health System and there are lots of them," Traber said. And many in UPHS have bought his style of medicine. "These are difficult and unsettling times," said Jack Ende, Chief of Medicine at the Penn-owned Presbyterian Medical Center. "And we need strong and identifiable leadership. That certainly is Peter Traber. I think he'll get the respect of the faculty." Ende said he doesn't see the "interim" in Traber's title as detracting from his ability to lead UPHS. He speculated that the Health System will have the same leverage in negotiating with insurance companies as it would have had under Kelley. "I don't think the fact that Peter has the interim title is going to mean much in that regard," he said. But most would admit that Traber has more serious issues to deal with than negotiating insurance contracts. UPHS has lost $300 million over the past three fiscal years, which has sparked speculation that the University Trustees may choose to force a financial separation from the Health System or a selloff of key assets, like one of Penn's four wholly-owned hospitals. And the recent ban on gene therapy at the Institute for Human Gene Therapy has added to the Health System's difficulties. In January, federal regulators accused IHGT director James M. Wilson and his researchers of breaching research protocol in their gene therapy clinical trial that resulted in the death of an 18-year-old. Traber was hesitant to talk about Wilson or the IHGT, though he stressed that researchers must follow rules and that the IHGT must put systems in place to identify potential problems before they escalate. Well-versed in the troubles the Health System is facing, Traber -- who arrived at Penn in 1992 -- has not yet formed any definite plans for its revival, though he has ideas about ways to mend the fiscal bleeding of UPHS, namely increasing efficiency as a primary means of cutting costs. Traber will have help with the specifics. Executives from the Hunter Group -- the Florida-based consultation firm known for its slash and burn tactics in cutting costs -- have been brought back to Penn after helping to plan a 20 percent workforce reduction last year. Traber and other University officials have maintained that the executives from the Hunter Group are serving only as consultants for the time being. But their continued presence has prompted speculation that other moves may be in store. The recent resignation of the Health System's chief operating officer has been blamed at least in part on Hunter's involvement in Penn affairs. "You don't bring the Hunter Group because you want everyone to fall in love with the board," said Alan Zuckerman, a consultant with Health Strategies and Solutions in Philadelphia. "It's very straightforward, you bring the Hunter Group in to cut costs." While Traber promised that UPHS would find its way back to financial solvency, he said additional lay-offs are not currently on the agenda. Traber maintained that he was opposed to a total separation, though adding that he would not discount some sort of separation of the Medical School and the Health System, which Ende and the rest of the faculty, strongly oppose. "I'm committed to that integration between academic medicine at the school and at least a portion of the healthcare delivery process," he said. And he stressed that any decision to change UPHS would involve consultation of faculty along with trustees and administrators from UPHS and the University. "There are lots of different people that'll be involved in that," he noted. "And that discussion will be ongoing."

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