William B. Downey takes the reins at Riverside Health System at a time when the system is growing and building, the uncertainty of health-care reform looms, and more people than ever before will seek health care.
A Riverside executive vice president since 2001 and its chief operating officer since 2003, Downey replaces retiring president Richard J. Pearce on March 1. Pearce will stay on as chief executive until the end of the year, when Downey will assume that title as well.
Downey wouldn't call for a repeal of health care reform. Parts of it — covering preventive services and expanding electronic health records — are good. He doesn't favor mandating health insurance coverage, because there are cases in which it doesn't make sense, such as for a young, healthy adult. But paying for reform by cutting reimbursements to providers, while expanding coverage of low-reimbursing health insurance plans, is not a good idea, Downey said.
"When you have an aging population, is that the best place to go?"
There's a "let's-fix-it-after-it's-broken" mentality pervading health care in this country, he said. The solution is preventing issues from becoming problems, and primary care physicians are the answer. That requires better communication between providers, patients and their families to keep patients from developing chronic illnesses and in advanced-care planning.
"We have to have a community-wide discussion on advanced-care planning, what their wishes are and how they want their wishes followed," Downey said.
Riverside's biggest challenges include declining reimbursement, computer system integration and recruiting and retaining staff. A hard economy kept more people in the workforce, but he foresees a shortage down the line.
As for Riverside's biggest competitor, Sentara Healthcare: "As systems, we need to do a better job on community health. How do we look to impacting diabetes, obesity, low birth rate babies? There's more we can do," Downey said.
Riverside's footprint has grown the last few years, its tentacles reaching into the Eastern Shore and Richmond and into new service areas such as the PACE (Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly) program. Downey wouldn't rule out further acquisitions or expansions.
"We want to continue to provide services across Eastern Virginia," he said. "We want to do that in a truly integrated way, and if an opportunity presented itself, we would truly look at it."
The health system, with about 4,000 of its 8,000 employees on the Peninsula, is the second-largest employer on the Peninsula and the only health system headquartered here.
And it's growing. In 2009, Riverside acquired Eastern Shore-based Shore Health Services Inc. Its medical group has grown to include 450 physicians, nurse practitioners and physician's assistants. Most recently, Med Express' three urgent-care centers joined the system.
At the top of Downey's priorities is to see through the list of ongoing projects. That includes construction of the first phase of a replacement hospital on the campus of Riverside Regional Medical Center in Newport News by early 2013. It also includes building the new Doctors Hospital of Williamsburg. Site work is continuing, and the plan is expected to come before the Planning Commission this month or next, Downey said.
Riverside plans to add three more PACE programs, in Denbigh, Richmond and Petersburg, by the end of next year.
Other projects include rebuilding the Sanders Retirement Community in Gloucester County and building a replacement hospital on the Eastern Shore.
Riverside Medical Group will continue to recruit physicians and specialists and expand electronic health records to all Riverside locations, Downey said. About 25,000 patients are enrolled in myHealth eLink, a secure electronic medical records system that enables patients to communicate with providers, schedule appointments, request prescription refills and view lab and diagnostic results.
And the health system continues to develop into an integrated health system that provides a continuum of care, from physician's office to hospital to long-term care facility, Downey said.
Downey's personal health message is that women ought to get their mammograms. His wife is a two-time breast-cancer survivor.
"I guess I take that on as a personal challenge — to encourage people to get age-appropriate screenings," he said.
Meet the president
William B. Downey will become president of Riverside Health System in March. Downey, 52, holds a B.S. degree in public administration from James Madison University and a master's in health administration from the Medical College of Virginia. He started working for Riverside Regional Medical Center in 1985 as an assistant administrator, served as vice president and administrator of Riverside Walter Reed Hospital from 1986 to 1991, and became Riverside Regional's senior vice president in 1992. He left in 1995 to work at medical centers in Roanoke and Florida and returned to Riverside in 2001.
His community involvement includes sitting on the An Achievable Dream and Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation boards and the Hampton Roads Economic Development Alliance executive committee. He's a past chair of the United Way of the Virginia Peninsula and the Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association.
He's married with three children and lives in James City County. His family has a nearly 400-year history in this area, dating to 1617 to a relative named Thomas Willoughby in Jamestown.