David Hunter remembered as a ‘giant of healthcare’

David Hunter, a former hospital CEO and executive of Voluntary Hospitals of America, died Sunday at the age of 75 after a bout with pancreatic cancer.

Hunter, who started a consulting firm in the late ’80s that specialized in turning around embattled academic medical centers, had a way of breaking tough news in an honest and relatable way, said Larry Scanlan, who worked for Hunter at the Hunter Group.

As a former hospital CEO and the son of two nurses, Hunter never lost sight that healthcare was about the patients, no matter the financial and operational pressure of keeping hospitals afloat, he said. That sentiment was reflected by the people he hired—former hospital executives, doctors and nurses who could personally understand the nuance and responsibility of being part of the healthcare industry.

“Whatever few things I did right in my career I owe to him,” Scanlan said. “He was bigger than life.”

Hunter is survived by his wife Mary, his five sons Perry, Edward, Seth, Josh and Eli as well as his grandchildren, Charles, Molly, Becca, Anna, Paden, Meredith, Hunter, Christian, Quinn, Olivia, Ben, Lily, Kait, Colin and Charly.

The family asked those who want to offer their support to donate to A Love for Life, which funds pancreatic research in partnership with Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania, or the Hunter Group Health Policy and Management Student Scholarship Award (with the code DHUNT).

“As his son, I am personally devastated by his passing as well as incredibly proud of what he accomplished in healthcare,” Seth Warren wrote in an email, noting that he followed his father as a CEO of a small health system in Indiana.

Hunter, who grew up in the Lehigh Valley area of Pennsylvania, began his career as a nursing home orderly. He moved his way up to become a hospital CEO at Nicholas H. Noyes in Dansville, N.Y. and Burlington County Memorial Hospital in Mount Holly, N.J.

He later joined the Voluntary Hospitals of America as the chief operating officer for the then-largest national network of not-for-profit hospitals in the U.S. Before starting the Hunter Group, Hunter became the chief executive of VHA Supply, a national group purchasing organization. He was selected as one of Modern Healthcare’s Most Powerful People in Healthcare in 2002, the inaugural list.

From his days of teaching hospital administration at Duke University in the mid-70s to his recent affiliation with his alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health where he earned his master’s degree in healthcare administration, Hunter never stopped mentoring leaders in healthcare, Warren said.

“There are generations of healthcare executives that have benefited from David’s insight, wit and friendship,” he wrote.

While the Hunter Group had a tough reputation as it guided providers through cost cutting and other thorny scenarios as detailed in a 1999 New York Times profile, it saved a lot of academic medical centers and community hospitals, Scanlan said.

“(David) was a giant in the industry,” he said. “He had a way of pulling people together.”

Outside of work, Hunter loved fishing, taking trips with his sons and friends all over the East Coast, Florida and Costa Rica. The fishing trips he enjoyed with his grandsons to Key West, Boca Grande and other Florida fishing spot created bonds that will last for generations, Warren said.

“David was a father and grandfather to people that extended well beyond his actual family,” he wrote. “His generosity knew no bounds, and if you met him, he likely bought you a beer at Ott’s, Buckalew’s, The Temperance House, The Black Whale, The Wharf or one of many other bars he loved. There are many bartenders that will miss him (and his large tips)!”

He would command a room, but it wasn’t from a place of arrogance, Scanlan said.

“He had a way with handling difficult situations by being honest with people and taking them for what they were,” he said. “He would say things—in a direct but not offensive manner—that other people may be fired for.”

In one instance, Hunter and Scanlan traveled to the West Coast to advise a client facing a difficult turnaround situation. Hunter was speaking to room of about 200 doctors when one of them challenged him.

“What I want is loyalty,” the doctor told him.

“You want loyalty?” Hunter replied. “Then go and buy yourself a cocker spaniel.”

“The stunning part was everyone in the room got it,” Scanlan said. “Whether it was a financial, clinical or operational issue, he had a knack for bringing people together by cutting to the chase.”