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Kootenai Health CEO reflects on hospital’s growth, future

Joe Morris stands outside Kootenai Medical Center on Aug. 10.  The longtime CEO  of Kootenai Health will be retiring this fall.  (Jesse Tinsley)
Joe Morris stands outside Kootenai Medical Center on Aug. 10. The longtime CEO of Kootenai Health will be retiring this fall. (Jesse Tinsley)

Kootenai Health CEO Joe Morris is retiring after 36 years heading North Idaho’s largest hospital. He prides himself on creating a secure work environment by never laying off employees and on keeping the public hospital debt-free. In addition, the hospital has not levied taxes for 15 years, despite adding a cancer center, open-heart surgery and other services. Next month, Morris will turn over the reins to Jon Ness, CEO of Billings Clinic, Montana’s largest not-for-profit health care organization.

Q. When you first started, what was this hospital like?

A. Well, it was all one story. They didn’t have a lot of money when they built it. They had a federal grant and they had general obligation bonds like schools do because we’re a public hospital. So, I think they had $3 million to build a hospital. One of the good things an early board did is they bought 26 acres way out of town. But because there was nothing in this area, a lot of this area developed into a medical community – doctors’ offices, health district, nursing home. So it was a rural hospital that had grown but had yet to become specialized.

Q. Do you have three top accomplishments, things you’re proudest of?

A. I think building the new building, then changing the financial position from a rural hospital, no reserves, with a lot of debt, to an organization that has good reserves, no debt. We built a cancer center, business services building last year, and we paid cash for it. Then I think the quality of what we do would probably be what I’m most proud of. We get awards for patient satisfaction; we get awards for clinical quality.

Q. Competition has increased a lot. How has Kootenai Health managed to keep patients here?

A. We provide high levels of quality, so that, I think, attracts patients. We’re owned by the community … so I think they look at it a little different than they would a for-profit hospital. We take care of anyone who walks through our door, which sets us apart from any other facility in this community. I think our community realizes that there are only certain services that make a profit in health care: surgery, diagnostic testing and pharmacy. And we try to make enough money there to subsidize all our other services. We’ll only face competition for those areas of health care that make a profit.

Q. What’s the five-year plan for the hospital?

A. We think that health care is going to become more integrated. I mean, in Spokane, with Rockwood becoming part of CHS, and there’s a cardiology group that recently became part of Sacred Heart. I think that’s where health care is headed to: a more integrated system with doctors and hospitals being part of the same organization. We have Kootenai Physicians Clinics with 50 physicians now who are part of the hospital. We have approached none of them; it’s physicians coming to us saying we’re interested in a different model.

Q. Do you view health care reform as good, bad or neutral?

A. I think the fact that we’re going to insure 32 million people who do not have insurance is a good thing. People die because they don’t have health insurance in this country. I think the number is 45,000 a year. We’re the only industrialized country where that’s the case. It will be up to hospitals and doctors and insurance companies to work together to make health reform successful. Because if we don’t, I don’t think it will be successful and it won’t control costs and it will be a lot more expensive than everyone said it was going to be. So as a whole we’re better off having it than not having it, but there’s a lot of work to do.

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