ROCKPORT, Maine — Roy Hitchings Jr.’s office is filled with the things he loves.
There are the family photographs, pictures of great fly-fishing locations and a large framed aerial photograph of Pen Bay Medical Center.
Hitchings has overseen PBMC and its affiliated organizations such as the Quarry Hill Retirement Center in Camden, the Knox Center for Long-Term Care in Rockland and the Kno-Wal-Lin home health care organization for more than 13 years.
Next Thursday, he will complete his final day as president and chief executive officer of Pen Bay Healthcare. The timing could not have been better for the 65-year-old health care executive. His first grandchild was born the night of Feb. 2 and he and his wife are scheduled to fly to San Francisco next week to meet their grandson for the first time.
Hitchings has weathered the challenges of an industry that has been made more difficult by reduced government reimbursement but he said he has been very lucky to have had a life in health care.
“I feel very fortunate. We get to do very important things for people,” Hitchings said. “We help to keep the people in our communities healthy. We are part of the safety net, along with police and fire.”
Health care has been Hitchings’ sole career, although he entered it somewhat by chance. After serving in the Army in Vietnam, Hitchings went to graduate school in Boston and earned a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard Business School. In 1974, he saw at the school’s career placement office a job opening overseeing several outpatient medical facilities for a health maintenance organization in Los Angeles.
This was about the same time that he and his wife Deborah got married and they traveled, with little money, across the country in his AMC Gremlin.
After overseeing the medical facilities in California, he worked in Connecticut, then at Cape Cod Healthcare based in Hyannis, Mass.
In 1998, a health care executive search consultant he knew contacted him and asked if he knew of anyone who might be a suitable candidate for a job opening up at Northeast Health in Rockport, the previous name of Pen Bay Healthcare.
“He said ‘I know you would have no interest,’” Hitchings recalled.
But the job immediately attracted him. He said the size of the operation was what he had been seeking. And after more than 13 years he knows he made the right decision.
“I know most of the staff and their families. I know all the doctors. You don’t get that in a larger place. I like to live and work in the same community,” he said.
The issues facing Pen Bay are the same that have faced all health care organizations for decades.
“The biggest challenge has always been balancing the needs of the people in our community and the available money,” the retiring chief executive said.
He said that during his career there have been cycles of increased and then decreased government funding but he also acknowledged that the past few years have been even harder with the effects of the Great Recession still being felt, limited economic growth in the United States and a stagnant world economy.
The state alone owed PBMC $12 million two years ago. Six million dollars of that debt was repaid last year, but since then the state has been underpaying Pen Bay each month to the point that the debt is back up to $12 million, he said.
The looming additional cuts in MaineCare funding from the state will only worsen the situation, he noted.
In addition, health care organizations are feeling the impact from the aging of the baby boomers.
“We will bankrupt Medicare if we don’t make changes,” Hitchings said.
When asked what he would do, he recommended a book by by Washington Post reporter T.R. Reid called “The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care.” Hitchings said he and several other people met Reid last year when he came to Maine.
Hitchings said the U.S. can learn lessons from countries such as France and Germany that have health care systems rated highly by Reid. Those countries have universal access to health care through a mix of public and private insurance and more of an emphasis on preventative care through prenatal medicine and immunizations.
Prevention is the key to better health care and reducing costs, he stressed.
“If I had a magic wand, I would wave it and increase the tax on cigarettes by $5 a pack,” Hitchings said.
He said he realizes smoking is an addiction but that there are smoking cessation programs offered by the hospital that are successful. People need to take advantage of them, he said.
“When someone quits smoking, they are not only healthier but they have earned a $2,500 a year raise,” he added.
Pen Bay Healthcare last year became a full member of MaineHealth, the not-for-profit family of health care organizations that includes Maine Medical Center in Portland. One of the benefits has been an increased emphasis on preventative health programs, such as “Let’s Go,” which is being launched locally. “Let’s Go” involves Pen Bay working with schools to get young people exercising more to reduce the rate of obesity, which leads to later health problems such as diabetes.
Hitchings said one of the things he is most proud of Pen Bay accomplishing during his service to the organization is creating a more patient and family-centered culture. One concrete example is the change of hours of operation for Pen Bay Pediatrics in Rockport, a pediatric medical practice that is under the Pen Bay Healthcare umbrella. The practice has evening hours and is open two hours per day on Saturdays and Sundays. He said two family practices will follow suit later this year — one in Rockport and one in Waldoboro.
Pen Bay Healthcare has grown over the years, now employing about 100 physicians and about 1,500 other employees. It operates on an annual budget of $144 million.
Hitchings said the creation of the Quarry Hill Retirement Center in Camden also is something he is proud of accomplishing, although he gives the credit of its success to its executive director Bob McKeown. Hitchings said the first major decision he made when he came to Northeast Health in August 1998 was whether to proceed with Quarry Hill.
The organization borrowed $20 million for the retirement center project which now serves 250-300 people and creates a community where the residents can feel secure and have access to the various levels of care that they need.
Hitchings is leaving Pen Bay Healthcare but will not leave health care. He will serve as a 20-hour-a-week regional clinical planner for MaineHealth. MaineHealth oversees several hospitals and health care organizations in Maine including Pen Bay, Miles Memorial Hospital in Damariscotta, Waldo County General Hospital in Belfast and Maine Medical Center in Portland.
Hitchings said he and his wife, who live in Camden, will remain here.
He said after their visit to San Francisco to see his new grandson, who has yet to be named, Hitchings said he wants some rest and relaxation. Both the Hitchings’ son and daughter live in San Francisco.
Hitchings said he can now also visit fly fishing locations in Maine that he has been unable to enjoy because of the demands of the job.
And the large aerial photograph of PBMC will be his gift to the new president and chief executive officer. The new chief administrator Wade Johnson will begin his duties on Feb. 13.