TOWNSHEND — In early 2014, Roger Allbee set aside the issue he knew best - agriculture - to become the top administrator of Vermont's smallest hospital.
It has been, he says, “a learning experience.”
Allbee, who on July 13 announced his pending retirement from Grace Cottage Hospital, said he has become well-acquainted during the past three years with the regulatory and financial problems rural hospitals face.
But he is also convinced there's still a place for a small, independent hospital focused on “community health care.”
“It's not about mergers. It's not about becoming one big organization,” Allbee said. “But it's about working together so that you can build on the strengths of what each institution does.”
Grace Cottage announced that Allbee will be retiring as chief executive officer “as soon as the board finds a suitable replacement.”
Stephan Morse, chairman of Grace Cottage's trustees, said a five-person search committee will seek a new CEO. Morse said the committee consists of two members from the hospital board; one member of Grace Cottage Foundation's board; and two hospital staffers.
“I don't think the board set a time frame [for finding a replacement],” Morse said. “I would hope that we would wrap this up by the end of the year, but it's not going to be an easy position to fill.”
Morse said he was referring to uncertainty about federal and state health care policy as well as to Grace Cottage's size: The hospital has just 19 inpatient beds.
“It's going to be a challenge to find the right person,” Morse said. “On the other hand, someone could look at it as an exciting opportunity.”
The hospital is small, Morse added, “but it's been successful for a very long time. The people in the area are really dedicated to it.”
Allbee falls into that category. A Brookline native who now lives in Townshend, Allbee “has the local sensitivities,” Morse said.
“He grew up in the area, and he knows the West River Valley,” Morse said. “The professional skills that he had with his prior background - he adapted very smoothly and very successfully.”
Allbee brought an agricultural background to the hospital. He served as state secretary of agriculture, food, and markets under Gov. Jim Douglas, and he had been executive director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency in Vermont prior to that.
He also knew Grace Cottage well, having served as a trustee for more than a decade prior to his being named the hospital's interim chief executive officer in January 2014.
The “interim” tag was removed three months later. But Allbee said he never envisioned staying in the job for the long term.
He's 72 now, and “there's a time when new, invigorated blood is needed,” Allbee said.
In announcing Allbee's retirement, Morse said that, “without Roger's dedicated service, Grace Cottage would be a very different facility today.” But Allbee declined to list any personal accomplishments, instead pointing to the hospital's “fine team” of staff and medical providers.
He said he's particularly proud of the fact that, “unlike other places, we've had a lot of stability in primary care. In fact, we're getting a lot of patients coming from other communities for primary care.”
He also touted the hospital's integration of mental-health care: For instance, Grace Cottage Family Health in April added a full-time mental health counselor, and the hospital also employs a mental health nurse practitioner.
And he noted that the hospital's Community Health Team has grown, reaching many more patients with services such as nutrition and exercise education; chronic disease, medication, and weight management; and other services.
At the same time, Allbee said he's troubled that primary and preventative care aren't valued - in terms of investment and reimbursement - the same way that more acute, specialized care is valued.
“It's very concerning, the trends we're seeing in health care,” Allbee said. “And I'm very concerned in terms of what we're seeing in Washington, D.C.”
Nevertheless, he believes that Grace Cottage's style of health care delivery remains relevant and vital. The hospital recently was lauded for ranking in the top 20 for patient satisfaction scores among critical access hospitals nationwide.
“I think there's a growing recognition that community health care is the essence of where things need to happen,” Allbee said.
But Allbee apparently won't be involved in that movement as either an administrator or policy expert. He said he intends to return to his roots.
“I'm still doing some work on agriculture,” he said.