Jeff and Abbie Neujahr

JEFF AND ABBIE NEUJAHR admire their new son, Duke, who was born in the Maternity Care Center at Kearney Regional Medical Center. Since opening in January 2017, the center has delivered 1,691 babies.

KEARNEY — It’s the people.

That’s the strength of Kearney Regional Medical Center, say administrators, board members and staff.

KRMC CEO Bill Calhoun nods in agreement.

He said KRMC, located at 804 22nd Ave., has “only gotten better” since he arrived April 22, 2018. “We started out with good people, and we’re invested in bringing out the best in these good people. We’re in tune with each other and what’s important. We have a clear sense of focus and purpose.”

“People in our communities have responded to our call. They believe in our cause. We wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for people asking us for service,” he said.

He said KRMC’s mission is to serve the health care needs of Kearney, western and central Nebraska and northern Kansas. “We stand beside these rural communities to make sure they have options,” he said. “We call it ‘our’ hospital and ‘our’ health system. It’s nobody else’s.”

Skyrocketing growth

KRMC’s groundwork was laid in 2009 when 40 physicians here decided to build their own hospital. It had its formal ribbon-cutting Feb. 14, 2014. At the time, it had 50 employees and 22 beds. Within a year, it was planning a $19 million expansion. The hospital and adjacent Platte Valley Medical Center occupy 18 of its 79 acres at the current site.

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KRMC now has 85 patient beds and is licensed for 93. Since its Maternity Care Center opened in January 2017, 1,691 babies have been born there.

More growth is expected in the next few years, especially at the PVMG building on the hospital’s north end. PVMG is a multispecialty physician organization that is a wholly owned subsidiary of KRMC.

“In the past 18 months alone, our labor footprint has grown by 25 percent,” Calhoun said. “When I came here, we had less than 700 employees. We have nearly 900 now. We’re just responding to the need.”

Galloping growth

To Calhoun, a native of Tomahawk, Wis., people come first. When he started his job he made no sweeping personnel changes. He valued the expertise of the people already in key positions.

“But we have grown so rapidly that we are outpacing ourselves. Consumer demand is one of our most significant challenges. 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. I’m trying to optimize the people we have through smart day-to-day management initiatives,” he said.

Local control is KRMC’s key asset, Calhoun said. At one of his previous jobs, the hospital board “offered input. Then the state board offered input, but the national board ultimately made the decision. Here, we make a local decision based on whether it makes sense,” he said.

The hospital’s 12-member board of managers meets once a month. The managers are made up of two groups — eight physicians, and four administrators. The administrators are all from Medical Development Management in Wichita. The physicians who own KRMC hired MDM to lease and operate KRMC.

Each group gets 50 percent of a vote on an issue. In case of a tie, a mediator is called, but that has never happened, Calhoun said. “Most decisions are concensus, or at least a majority vote.”

The single non-voting board member is Dr. David Weir, the president of the medical staff. He is an obstetrician-gynecologist with Contemporary Obstetrics and Gynecology.

Calhoun replaced Larry Speicher, KRMC’s first CEO, who left to become CEO of the Grand Island Regional Hospital, the physician-led hospital set to open in 2020 in Grand Island.

Calhoun said KRMC has four goals: People. Service. Quality. Sustainability.

“No matter the size of your organization, as long as you have a clear sense of the organization, people understand it,” he said.

‘Polite, respectful’

Right now, Calhoun said, growth is KRMC’s biggest challenge.

“The physicians who started this hospital didn’t have significant aspirations to grow very much, or to have this kind of expansion,” he said. The idea was simply to be a physician-guided, locally based hospital centered on the best interests of Kearney and Buffalo County.

But growth was inevitable, partly because in September 2014, six months after KRMC opened, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Nebraska removed the CHI Health system from its network. Many Blue Cross patients turned to KRMC.

“Blue Cross opened the door,” Calhoun said. “But after that was settled (in July 2015), patients kept coming. I like to think that as an organization, we’re polite, respectful and offer very good service. People like that. And we don’t use the term ‘affordable,’ but we think in terms of being an affordable in Nebraska.”

Returning to his roots

Calhoun began his career as an occupational therapist, then moved into health care administration. He held top-level positions at The Aroostok Medical Center in Presque Isle, Maine. He served as regional vice president for Affinity Health System in Oshkosh, Wis., a regional hospital system with 4,900 licensed beds.

He moved to central Florida in September 2014 to work for Health First Inc., an independent health care system, but quickly, he and his wife “soon realized it was more fun to vacation in Florida than to live there.” He also realized he enjoyed working for smaller organizations, and living in the Midwest.

“When I came to Kearney to interview, I found a lot of kindness and respect here. People made eye contact. They are honest and sincere, good people,” he said.

Future challenges

As KRMC keeps attracting patients, Calhoun and the board are responding. In the next five years, Calhoun expects KRMC to enlarge its medical staff. PVMG has no endocrinologists, rheumatologists or infectious disease specialists. It has no pediatricians, and does not plan to add any, but it has family practitioners who can and do see children.

Within the next 12 months, Calhoun expects KRMC to apply for a Level III trauma designation. Discussions also have began on PVMG expansion.

Insurance is a challenge, too. KRMC is largely dependent on revenue from Medicare and Nebraska Blue Cross/Blue Shield, along with other insurers. “Reduced reimbursements from Medicare are a challenge,” he said.

Most of all, Calhoun wants to retain the “small organization feel” of KRMC.

“Our culture is very important. How can we keep that atmosphere as we grow?” he said.

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