Laurence M. Merlis, 55, president and chief executive officer at Greater Baltimore Medical Center since 1999, has been named president and chief executive officer of Abington Health and Abington Memorial Hospital.

He will begin Feb. 15.

Merlis, whose hiring was announced today, will replace Richard L. Jones, who in July said that he would be retiring.

Chris Gadsden, a member of Abington's board and chair of the search committee, said that the board was impressed by Merlis' experience and that he was considered to be a strong strategic leader.

Gadsden added that Merlis is "a person of great vision, but also has a very strong operational sense. He has enjoyed - and this was very important to us - excellent relationships with the medical staff at the hospital where he's presently employed. One of the things that the physicians liked was that his father was a practicing physician."

The Greater Baltimore Medical Center, a community hospital in Towson, Md., has 360 beds and was part of a system that Merlis also headed, GBMC HealthCare, with an annual operating budget of about $420 million

In Abington, Merlis will be running a hospital and health system roughly double that in size. Abington Memorial Hospital has 665 beds and one of the region's busiest emergency rooms with more than 100,000 patients a year, and typically ranks second or third in Pennsylvania in the number of births, averaging about 5,000 a year.

Abington only recently expanded from a single hospital into a health system, acquiring the 120-bed Lansdale Hospital last year, and Warminster Hospital, now an outpatient facility and inpatient hospice, the year before that. Abington Health has an operating budget of $825 million for the current fiscal year.

Merlis said he has followed Abington for years. "I was so impressed with their focus on quality and patient safety," he said today in a telephone interview.

He also praised the quality of Abington's nurses, the hospital staff's "sense of collegiality," and Abington's "presence in the market as a destination hospital, with the ability to continue to grow. That's a hospital I could see as a capstone to my career."

"I think the challenges that Abington faces will be similar to challenges that all organizations face as we head into health-care reform," he said.

He stressed that as the United States attempts to expand access to health care for all Americans, hospitals will "have to do more with less and be very thoughtful and selective in terms of how we allocate resources."

He said he expects Abington to continue to focus on specialty and primary care.

"I think there will be different pilots and experiments across the country that will look at how organizations can improve the health outcomes of patients, particularly the chronically ill," he said, noting that Abington was well-positioned because it already provided a "continuum of care."

Contact Staff Writer Michael Vitez at 215-854-5639 or mvitez@phillynews.com