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New Valley Regional CEO Has His Ear to the Ground

  • Peter Wright, new CEO of Valley Regional Hospital, has been on a listening tour since arriving at the hospital earlier this month. (Valley News - Libby March)

    Peter Wright, new CEO of Valley Regional Hospital, has been on a listening tour since arriving at the hospital earlier this month. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Peter Wright, new CEO of Valley Regional Hospital in Claremont. (Valley News - Libby March)

    Peter Wright, new CEO of Valley Regional Hospital in Claremont. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Peter Wright, CEO of Valley Regional Hospital in Claremont, N.H., on March 29, 2013. (Valley News - Libby March)

    Peter Wright, CEO of Valley Regional Hospital in Claremont, N.H., on March 29, 2013. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Peter Wright, CEO of Valley Regional Hospital in Claremont, N.H., on March 29, 2013. (Valley News - Libby March)

    Peter Wright, CEO of Valley Regional Hospital in Claremont, N.H., on March 29, 2013. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Peter Wright, new CEO of Valley Regional Hospital, has been on a listening tour since arriving at the hospital earlier this month. (Valley News - Libby March)
  • Peter Wright, new CEO of Valley Regional Hospital in Claremont. (Valley News - Libby March)
  • Peter Wright, CEO of Valley Regional Hospital in Claremont, N.H., on March 29, 2013. (Valley News - Libby March)
  • Peter Wright, CEO of Valley Regional Hospital in Claremont, N.H., on March 29, 2013. (Valley News - Libby March)

Claremont — Around 30 department managers at Valley Regional got together Tuesday for their monthly meeting when Peter Wright, the hospital’s new CEO, came prepared with a question.

“He walked in and said, ‘who’s running this meeting?’ ” said Charles Sawyer, the medical director of the emergency department.

The answer that occurred to Sawyer was that, well, Wright should be running it. But that was not how the 40-year-old CEO wanted to handle things. Instead, the meeting would be run by the managers themselves.

“He literally hands it back to them and lets them go with it,” Sawyer said.

Wright came on board March 4 to replace Claire Bowen, who retired after 13 years as president and CEO at Valley Regional.

Since his first day on the job, Wright said he has been doing more “listening than talking” as he tours the Claremont hospital’s hallways every morning and afternoon, touching base with as many of its 470 employees as possible. At lunchtime, he avoids the “administrators table” in the corner of the room . And when he talks with people, he asks a lot of questions, “like a friggin’ therapist,” Sawyer said.

Wright is still learning his way around Valley Regional and the city . A former administrator at Littleton Regional Hospital, Wright has been charged with bringing the 120-year-old Claremont institution closer to the community it serves during a time of immense change in the health care industry.

Valley Regional finished fiscal year 2012 with its $50 million budget in the black, but Wright will still have to confront financial challenges as federal funding through Medicare and Medicaid continues to get cut and payment models change. He takes the helm as the hospital negotiates changes as a result of the Affordable Care Act, adapts to pressures to lower health care spending while maintaining quality of care, and builds on its relationship with Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

Among his first priorities, however, has been getting familiar with Valley Regional’s culture and its patients.

“One of the things about working with a small hospital is that you know all the patients,” he said. “Every community wants to believe in their community hospital. They want to believe it’s a good place to go.”

Valley Regional has traditionally had a good relationship with the community, said hospital and city officials, and is well respected for the care it provides. It is the only small hospital in New Hampshire accredited by the Joint Commission, a not-for-profit organization that accredits and certifies more than 20,000 health care organizations and programs in the United States.

Many health care experts believe, however, that the days of standalone, community hospitals such as Valley Regional are numbered, and that these institutions must carve out a niche within a larger network of health care providers. Dartmouth-Hitchcock CEO James Weinstein has said New Hampshire has far too many hospitals, and has advocated for tighter affiliations between them in order to pool resources, lower their overall costs and provide better coordinated, more efficient care.

Wright’s hiring alone represents something of a step in that direction for Valley Regional. Technically, he is an employee of Dartmouth-Hitchcock who is then leased back to Valley Regional through a “management services agreement.” Valley Regional remains independent, but the relationship gives Valley Regional access to some of the resources of a large academic medical center.

Valley Regional’s nearest “competitors” — New London Hospital and Mt. Ascutney Hospital and Health Center in Windsor — have the same kind of management agreement with Dartmouth-Hitchcock. Wright said each of these institutions will have to push aside rivalries and learn to work together.

“If we compete, we’re going to peril,” he said.

Valley Regional will have plenty of work in treating Claremont residents and the surrounding communities in Sullivan County. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation recently ranked Sullivan second-worst in the state for overall health. The county had high rates of smoking, adult obesity, low birthweight, premature death and teen pregnancy. Meanwhile, it has fewer primary care physicians and dentists than most other New Hampshire counties.

There are a variety of factors contributing to these issues, Wright said, not all of which Valley Regional can address. Among his early goals is to get out into the community and improve awareness of what the hospital can offer patients, and perhaps get out in front of some problems before they grow into severe health concerns.

“We need to take care of folks when they’re not well,” he said. “But we still need to preach preventative medicine.”

Wright has spent much of his time outside the hospital, meeting with local employers about setting up wellness programs and introducing himself to city officials to share his ideas for Valley Regional.

Claremont Fire Chief Richard Bergeron met with Wright last week during a group meeting of various city officials. Bergeron said he does not have any particular ideas for how Valley Regional could improve, but appreciated Wright’s overture.

“I have every confidence he’s going to do terrific things,” Bergeron said.

Within the hospital, Wright’s eagerness to meet people has also been well-received. Sawyer called him a “breath of fresh air.”

Other staff have met their new boss briefly while he’s making the rounds.

“He seems very approachable,” said Cindy Largess, a Claremont resident and physical therapy assistant at Valley Regional.

Largess hopes to provide more rehabilitation services for joint replacement, the demand for which has fallen off since Valley Regional’s orthopedic surgeon left in January for a job at Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital in Lebanon.

“That’s kind of what we love and thrive on here,” Largess said.

The hospital continues to provide orthopedic services with temporary surgeons and expects to have a permanent replacement hired by July, said Valley Regional spokesman Rolf Olsen.

Jessica Rider, also a Claremont resident and the medical imaging manager at Valley Regional, said she is pleased Wright has been trying to boost Valley Regional’s outreach to the community.

In meeting the needs of residents, she said the hospital should look at expanding hours to improve access, which is what her department has done.

It’s important to find out what the community needs are, she said, and “one of them is accommodating the working class.”

Caring for working-class and low-income residents will be increasingly important for all hospitals should New Hampshire move forward with an expansion of its Medicaid program, as provided for under the Affordable Care Act.

Valley Regional is already accustomed to treating patients on Medicaid, as well as Medicare, whose enrollees combined account for more than half its patient volume.

The future direction for Valley Regional is still very much a mystery, Wright said. The needs of the community may change. There will likely be stronger ties with Dartmouth, but he doesn’t know exactly what they will look like. For now, Wright has focused on trying to understand the institution and its patients, and shape a “service culture” that takes a hands-on, personal approach to providing care.

“The control we have is the culture we set,” he said. “What we’re working on here is to have a very good culture. We’re looking for folks who are well-trained, but we also look for folks with the right values.”

Chris Fleisher can be reached at 603-727-3229 or cfleisher@vnews.com.