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A man on a mission

Dr. Johnson hopes to improve health, happiness of entire community

Dr. John Johnson

MARTINS FERRY — Dr. John Johnson isn’t just a psychiatrist — he’s also an entrepreneur who is making investments in the Ohio Valley that he believes will have a great impact on the community for years to come.

Johnson purchased the shuttered East Ohio Regional Hospital last spring and is working to reopen it this month.

But that wasn’t his first investment in the Ohio Valley.

In 2012 he bought the former Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel headquarters in downtown Wheeling. He announced recently that with help from developer Steven Coon of Coon Restoration & Sealants Inc. of Canton, Ohio, it will be turned into an apartment building with 110 units.

“I bought it with the long-term view that this area, in the middle of an energy revival, could have great potential. So you can consider me a long-term believer of the Ohio Valley. With the revival of downtown living concepts, I felt the building would have great potential for market-rate housing,” Johnson said.

At about the same time he purchased the Wheeling building Johnson said he met Coon, whom he described as a “national expert on historic building restoration.”

Johnson said he worked with the West Virginia Legislature and local government leaders on matching state historic tax credits with those from other states.

Parking issues for the building also were resolved with help from the city of Wheeling.

“Now as a joint venture, it is a much larger project that will mean investing around $31 million to enhance this building to a new version of the magnificent glory it had in the past,” he said.

Regarding his purchase of EORH, Johnson saw it not only as an investment, but he also believed it was necessary to reopen it for the community. In 2019, two of the three major hospitals in the region — EORH and Ohio Valley Medical Center — were shut down by their former owner, California-based Alecto Healthcare Services. Wheeling Hospital remains open and is owned by the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.

“Even when all three hospitals were functioning, it was still a medically underserved area. After the closure of the two hospitals, the health care accessibility to this community had deteriorated significantly to the point where people were waiting in the ER literally for several hours,” Johnson said. “As the EORH community and elected officials were eager to support the reopening, I saw it as an opportunity to take the expertise I had already gained with my other healthcare endeavors to make a difference in the Ohio Valley.”

During the past 35 years, Johnson said, he has bought and expanded a variety of health care organizations. He said Access Ohio is one of the state’s largest independent behavioral health centers with locations in Central Ohio including in Dayton, Kenton and Heath, Ohio. He also owns and operates Access Hospital, which is a 110-bed inpatient psychiatric facility. Johnson said he also owns and runs various “primary care centers, substance abuse and residential treatment facilities, and telemedicine and healthcare technology enterprises.”

Johnson has been a board-certified psychiatrist for more than 20 years.

“I am extremely proud of being an Ohioan and believe strongly that it’s our values, work ethic, and integrity that sets our communities apart,” he said. “This is very much the case with the Ohio Valley. When EORH closed, I felt a calling to marshal my resources to do something to revive the facility and to make sure it is reopened in a sustainable and efficient way so that it can support the local community.

“As a psychiatrist, I am trained to look beneath the surface to help discover the potential of people, rather than just how they might be at the present time and to try and help them move closer to reaching that potential.

“It is with that same perspective that I looked at a closed EORH last year, and at an empty Wheeling-Pitt building back in 2012, with a vision of what they could both become in the future. Psychiatry has taught me the value of patience. Changes in human behavior cannot be achieved with quick fixes, and instead require constant attention and persistence. So as with other endeavors of mine, I am in it for the long haul.”

Johnson was born and raised in Kerala, a state in southern India. He received his medical degree at Magadh Medical College and completed medical residencies in India, at the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons in Dublin, Ireland, and at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh.

Johnson wanted to become a doctor because of what he witnessed as a child in India.

“I knew I wanted to be a doctor at a very early age. In the rural village in India where I grew up, getting access to health care was not easy. People had to travel long distances to seek medical attention and as a result they only sought help at late stages of their disease,” Johnson said.

“I saw many conditions that could have been prevented, but instead escalated with fatal consequences as a result from the delay in receiving healthcare. That is why I firmly believe in bringing access to communities where there is a healthcare professional shortage.

“I have always focused on health education and early detection of disease in order to prevent complications and improve quality of life for those under treatment.

“I always wanted to make a difference in people’s lives in a positive way, and seeing first-hand how critical health care is to individuals, their families, and households, it only reinforced why I wanted to become a doctor.”

Johnson said he also earned his MBA 25 years ago, but it was while watching how health care operates across three continents that he learned the most.

“I learned a great deal about various systems and gained an understanding of the better attributes of each. I also witnessed significant waste due to lack of efficiencies,” he said.

“The drive to become an entrepreneur and investor came from a desire to be able to make a lasting impact beyond treating one patient at a time. Practicing in psychiatry — which traditionally has low reimbursements — I had to put into practice a more cost-efficient model to make the behavioral health model succeed,” he said.

Johnson said his community mental health centers have grown and given access to mental health care to more than 30,000 patients. Doing this successfully gave him the confidence to take on running his first large medical facility — the psychiatric hospital in Dayton. It had closed in 2009 after seeing losses of $22 million a year, he said. But he turned it around.

“I have been fortunate to operate it successfully for over 10 years since its reopening, as well as expanding into several new projects including primary care centers, residential treatment facilities to tackle substance abuse in our communities, as well as telemedicine and health technology ventures,” Johnson said.

Johnson said he considers himself a doctor first, but he has several other businesses in his portfolio including those related to precision manufacturing such as an additive technologies business (3-D printing in metal); partial ownership of real estate development and construction companies, including several property and infrastructure construction firms across the Midwest and Florida; along with more than 1.2 million square feet of commercial and residential properties.

“While I have been fortunate to have success in a variety of endeavors, it is the impact of the health care endeavors that has been closest to my heart because of the direct impact that health and wellness has to families, communities, and society at large. That is why the EORH effort is one that I am so determined and focused on getting right and constantly improving long after our reopening,” Johnson said.

“I am hopeful that it will provide a good example of private capital coming in alongside the community and government to have a powerful, positive, and collaborative impact on the region for decades to come.”

Johnson and his wife, Latha, met when they were teenagers.

“After starting as childhood sweethearts, many decades later, she’s still the love of my life. While I had been raised in a Christian household, my wife grew up in a completely different faith altogether as she came from a Hindu family,” he said.

“We were married very young after years of a long-distance relationship. My wife and I have resided in Ohio for over 25 years, briefly in Zanesville, but most of the time in Columbus. She is an IT executive in financial services, and has worked at organizations like Nationwide and JP Morgan Chase.”

The couple has two adult children. Their son Nithin attended Ohio State University and Oxford University in England, where he received his MBA. He works in investment banking and private equity at Tikehau Capital in New York City. Their daughter Neethi graduated from Ohio State University with an MBA. She works in corporate strategy with JP Morgan Chase in Columbus, Ohio.

The couple also has a new grandson, Arun, who is Nithin’s son. The baby was born in December.

Johnson said while his home is in the Columbus area, since he spends so much time in the Ohio Valley he feels like he lives here.

“As certain developments evolve, I am planning to have a residence in the area as well,” he said.

Johnson said he is always interested in pursuing new projects, especially those related to health, but he wants them to be sustainable for a long time.

“Even if it takes a multi-year approach, in order for a project to be an ongoing benefit to the community and to employ and keep employed local talent, it has to be shaped in a way that it can be financially independent in order to be long-lasting,” he said. “With respect to reopening EORH, it has been a monumental undertaking and I am very focused on making sure it is done the right way so I am sure that this will be my main focus for the time being.”

Johnson noted the EORH purchase deal had its challenges, but most deals do. He said having the support of the community, along with leaders at the city, state and federal levels, made a difference.

“EORH is extremely important to me because of what EORH means to Martins Ferry and the Ohio Valley and that is why we’ve been working so hard to reopen as fast as possible while also making sure we’ve gotten everything ready to do so as best and safely as we can to serve the community,” he said.

Johnson noted his philosophy in life has been to do the right thing to help people in a “sustainable and scalable way.”

“I have been fortunate to have been able to do well by doing good. I am thankful to God for giving me opportunities to build, improve or turnaround organizations that help make that positive impact and employ talented people. I am grateful to the amazing people of the Ohio Valley community who have stepped up and embraced the reopening of their local hospital,” he said.

“The positive encouragement and blessings they have given motivates me to continue to try and support the growth and flourishing of the whole community. My personal mission is not only to improve the healthcare for the people we serve, but I want to play an active role in improving the overall health, wellness, productivity and happiness of the entire community.”

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