South Peninsula Hospital CEO will retire next summer

South Peninsula Hospital CEO Bob Letson is leaving Homer after nearly a decade. What he’ll remember most from his time here are all the expanded medical services he brought on board to make it easier for Homer residents to get the help they need, he said.

Letson is set to retire in June 2018, according to a release from the hospital. He and his wife, Cristal, plan to move out east to be closer to family.

“I probably started thinking about it (retirement) about six months ago when my sister was diagnosed with cancer, and my oldest daughter was diagnosed with cancer,” Letson said. “I started thinking about being able to visit my children and grandchildren more often because, you know, life can be short.”

Letson became the hospital’s chief administrator in March 2008, according to the release. At that point, he had 21 years of experience with not-for-profit hospital management and 13 years with for-profit hospitals.

Over the years, Letson has spearheaded a number of expansions and projects to better the hospital, including the ongoing expansion and renovation to the Homer Medical Clinic.

“He has been so great for Homer and for our hospital,” said Julie Woodworth, South Peninsula Hospital Board of Directors Vice President. “He is just one of the hardest working guys I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with, and everything he does is for the betterment of the hospital.”

From orthopedic services and an oncology clinic to a Veterans Affairs clinic and specialists in a variety of medical areas, Letson has been instrumental in South Peninsula Hospital’s growth over the years.

“Some of the things that come to mind that I guess I feel really good about, is I expanded the services of the hospital quite a bit in almost 10 years,” he said. “Which included recruiting 25 doctors, which of course made those services possible, and about 15 of those doctors live in Homer and then another 10 travel from Anchorage to help us out with clinics.”

Since Letson has been in place, South Peninsula Hospital has also gained designations for being a Critical Access Hospital, as well as Emergency Level Trauma IV and Patient Centered Medical Home II designations. The hospital has also seen the addition of an acute care wing, a new emergency room, a new imaging department and an MRI scanner, among other improvements.

“I think adding some new services so people don’t have to travel to Anchorage, and bringing the doctors here into Homer to be available when people need to be seen, that’s one of the greatest things in my memories,” he said.

Letson also spoke of the hospital’s financial state and how he worked to improve it over the years. Revenue at the hospital has grown from $34 million a year to $110 million a year, before expenses and adjustments, he said.

With Letson’s departure less than a year away, the South Peninsula Hospital Board of Directors will begin the search for a replacement.

“We are going to start looking quickly because he has very big shoes to fill,” Woodworth said.

The nice thing about Letson’s announcement is that it gives the board a good heads up and time to go through the recruitment process systematically, she said. Senior management will be engaged in the process, as will a recruiting firm to help vet candidates, she said.

One thing that may help direct the search for Letson’s successor a bit is the hospital’s designation for critical access, Woodworth said.

“The critical access hospital has some unique attributes to it from an operations standpoint,” she said. “It would be great to have a CEO with experience in critical access hospitals.”

As for whoever follows him, Letson said that CEO will likely be faced with budget issues trickling down from the federal and state level. His successor could also have to contend with some changes in the way the hospital does business.

“I think with the situation in Alaska of having some budget issues … there could be some drastic changes in the Medicaid program, which would affect the hospital reimbursement,” Letson said.

Whoever comes on board next will have to work closely with the hospital’s CFO to reduce expenses to meet most likely declining reimbursement, he said.

However, the future of the hospital does not look dim in Letson’s eyes, particularly because of steps he says he took in anticipation of changes in the health care industry.

“Part of my job has been to try to strategically plan for the future,” he said.

That included the 2012 merger between South Peninsula Hospital and Homer Medical Clinic, which Letson said he spearheaded in order to have an outpatient system integrated with hospital services. This move was to prepare for the future of reimbursement, which Letson said is going to involve doctors and hospitals working in line together.

“We have all the pieces in place to react to the way reimbursement will change in the next four or five years, and we have a good supply of physicians,” he said.

Woodward said getting a new CEO will likely be a lengthy process, due to the time it will take to get it right. Once you find a candidate, they have to give their own employer sufficient notice and get through the transition to the new hospital, she said.

“We’re fortunate because Homer has a lot to offer,” she said.

As for Letson’s future, though he plans to visit more often with his family, it may not be completely devoid of health care. He might consider doing some consulting work or interim hospital administrator assignments in a limited capacity, he said.

“I’ve been blessed to work with a lot of excellent people at the hospital,” Letson said. “And I will miss the citizens of the Homer area because it’s been a very pleasant 10 years. Everyone’s made me feel like home, and I’ll certainly miss the friendliness of everyone, moving away.”

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