KEARNEY — Bill Calhoun likes to say he “stumbled” upon his job as CEO at Kearney Regional Medical Center last April, but then he grins. He means that in a good way.
While working in Florida, he happened to find the KRMC job posted on a website while he was scouting around for a position in his native Midwest.
He’s glad he did.
He loves Kearney and sees enormous potential for its newest hospital.
“Consumer demand is one of our most significant challenges. We’re outgrowing ourselves,” he said. “This is a Catch-22. It’s a good thing to be growing, but we have to figure out where we’re going to go from here.”
Growth is synonymous with KRMC at 804 22nd Ave. in southwest Kearney.
It opened in 2014 with just 22 beds, but within a year it was planning for a $19 million expansion. It now has 85 beds and is licensed for 93.
It has 800 employees. Its 2-year-old Maternity Care Center delivered 650 babies last year. Its 15-month-old Emergency Department had nearly 6,000 visits in 2018.
In the next few years, Calhoun expects to add more staff and expand the Platte Valley Medical Group building on the hospital’s north end.
“Physicians guided the idea of having a local hospital. It’s interesting to work with a governing board largely made up of doctors,” he said. Calhoun also finds it refreshing to work at a what — so far — is a “smaller” medical institution. That, and Kearney’s people, are what brought him here.
Roots in the Midwest
Born in Tomahawk, Wis., population 3,500, Calhoun, 55, went to a small college in Wausau for a few years before transferring to the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
“When I came to Kearney to interview, the people reminded me of the people back home in Wisconsin. There is a lot of kindness and respect here. People made eye contact. They were willing to actively engage in conversation. That immediately impressed me. I could tell they were honest and sincere, good people,” he said.
He began his career as an occupational therapist. He then obtained his master’s degree in business and moved into health care administration. Among other positions, he was senior vice president and chief operating officer of The Aroostok Medical Center in Presque Isle, Maine. He served as regional vice president for Affinity Health System in Oshkosh, a regional hospital system with 4,900 licensed beds that generated $850 million in revenue a year.
From Oshkosh, he and his wife Patti moved to central Florida in September 2014, where he became president of community hospitals, and later president of hospital operations, for Health First Inc., an independent health care system in central Florida. “My wife Patti and I had vacationed in Florida for years, but we soon realized it was more fun to vacation in Florida than to live there. The people there are very transient. It didn’t feel like home.”
He did a lot of soul searching.
“I asked myself, when did I have the most joy in my work? It was when I was working at Mercy Medical Center in Oshkosh. It had 172 beds. We had 700 employees. It was comparable to Kearney. It was a smaller organization. I got to know people,” he said. He wanted to return to the Midwest.
A job was waiting
When Calhoun found the ad for KRMC on the web, he wrote a letter to the hospital.
“We had a conversation. I came for a site visit,” he said. The job was open because Larry Speicher, its first and only CEO, had left to become CEO of Grand Island Regional Hospital, the physician-led hospital under construction there. Calhoun started his KRMC job on April 18, 2018.
Calhoun discerned immediately that KRMC had what he calls a “good foundation.”
He said, “We have four goals: People. Service. Quality. Sustainability. Those goals are carried into every department. These become talking points. No matter the size of your organization, as long as you have a clear sense of the organization, people understand it,” he said.
Nearly one year later, he finds hospital staff members embracing those goals. He believes communication is critical. “If we teach leaders to communicate effectively and align themselves to a goal, we can create opportunities for people to be meaningfully engaged.”
He values the “small organization feel” of KRMC.
“Our culture is very important. How can we keep that atmosphere as we grow?” Calhoun said.
Growth is his mightiest challenge.
“This is a different place from what it was five years ago when it opened. When I came last year, we identified our mission as the health of local people. The idea was being a physician-guided, locally based hospital based on the best interest of Kearney and Buffalo County. The physicians who started this hospital didn’t have significant aspirations to grow very much, or to have this kind of expansion,” he said.
But growth was inevitable, partly because in September 2014, a few months after KRMC opened, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Nebraska removed the CHI Health System, which includes Good Samaritan Hospital, from its network. That left BCBS patients responsible for paying out of their pockets for health care. Many turned to KRMC.
“Blue Cross opened the door,” Calhoun said. “Patients tend to follow their doctors, so as doctors left Good Sam and were admitted to KRMC, patients followed. I am partial, but I like to think that as an organization, we’re polite, respectful and offer very good service. People like that.” The dispute between BCBS and CHI was settled in July 2015, but KRMC’s growth was off and running.
As KRMC grows, medicine changes. The push is for more outpatient stays, but the aging population often requires more in-hospital stays and so do younger people who need major surgery.
This winter, the flu has hospitalized people for several days. New mothers require hospital stays as well.
As of now, KRMC has no ambulance service. The CHI Health-based Emergency Medical Services brings patients to KRMC if they ask, but most are automatically transported to Good Samaritan, the designated Level II trauma location in Buffalo County. Within the next 12 months, Calhoun expects KRMC to apply for a Level III trauma designation. The levels refer to staffing, not the quality of care, he was quick to add.
KRMC also needs to expand its medical building. It has converted space for several more offices but needs more, especially after Kearney Clinic closed last year, and more doctors expressed interest in joining the Platte Valley Medical Group.
“We don’t have the physical capacity for everyone,” Calhoun said.
KRMC also hopes to add two more operating rooms, which could cost $3 million. It currently has five.
Finally, more inpatient rooms are needed as well. While most of KRMC’s 85 rooms are private, 12 have, out of necessity, been converted into double rooms, primarily for people who are in the hospital for brief stays. “If someone just had major surgery, that patient would have a private room,” he said.
Insurance is a challenge, too.
KRMC largely is dependent on revenue from Medicare and Blue Cross Blue Shield, along with other insurers. “Reduced reimbursements from Medicare are a challenge. Commercially insured places are always looking to drive down costs. We have to pay taxes and provide care to people who don’t have financial resources,” he said.
He added that KRMC expects to be “personal, compassionate and innovative. We don’t use the term ‘affordable,’ but we think in terms of being affordable in Nebraska.”
Calhoun has immersed himself in Kearney.
He is on the board of the Kearney Area Chamber of Commerce. He belongs to the Dawn Rotary Club. He is involved in United Way of the Kearney Area. He serves on a state task force dealing with human trafficking.
On the personal front, he and Patti are building a house outside of Kearney’s west side. Their two grown children live in Florida but visit frequently. Calhoun chuckles as he tells about his son’s girlfriend, a Miami woman, who knew nothing about life in the country. “She loves coming here,” he said.
Calhoun is glad he did, too.