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.”
Last week, as Allbee announced his retirement from Grace Cottage Hospital in Townshend, he said he’s become well acquainted with the regulatory and financial problems rural hospitals face.
But he’s also convinced there’s still a place for a small, independent hospital that’s 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 Thursday 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.
“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,” according to Morse.
“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 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 employs a mental health nurse practitioner.
And he said the hospital’s Community Health Team has grown, reaching many more patients with services that include nutrition and exercise education, and management of chronic disease, medication and weight.
At the same time, Allbee said he’s troubled that primary and preventive care is not valued – in terms of investment and reimbursement – the same way that more acute, specialized care is valued. That’s a theme that also emerged at a state health care forum Tuesday in Burlington.
“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.