Spokane Journal of Business

Morris has led KMC’s rise

Kootenai Medical Center

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COEUR DALENEJoe Morris was working in his office at Kootenai Medical Center here in September when he was summoned to one of the hospitals operating rooms. There, Morris witnessed the first open-heart surgery ever performed in North Idaho.


The moment was gratifying, says the 56-year-old Morris, the hospitals CEO, in whats probably an understatement. Adding cardiovascular surgery to KMCs roster of services required two years of planning, raising money, building facilities, and recruiting physicians to run the program, all to launch the most complex service weve ever added, he says.


That kind of effort isnt foreign to Morris, however. Hes been at the helm of KMC for its two biggest expansions in the last 20 years, essentially overseeing the creation of the hospital that North Idaho residents know and use today.


And it is well-used. KMC treated 45,000 people in its emergency room last year, brought nearly 1,400 babies into the world, performed 5,500 surgeries, provided 37,000 treatments to cancer patients, and saw 192,000 patients on an outpatient basis.


All those would be records for the hospital, Morris says. Our volume surprises people, he adds, especially Coeur dAlene residents who remember the small-town, 90-bed facility that existed in the 1970s.


Thats about the time Morris entered the picture as KMCs assistant administrator, fresh from a graduate program in hospital administration at the University of Washington.


I thought Id spend maybe five years here, he says, 30 years later.


Helping a tribe


Morris spent his first decade in the small town of Kimball, Neb., a period in his life he describes as idyllic.


We had a nice house, and I grew up hunting arrowheads, he says.


His father died when he was 5, however, and after five more years in Nebraska his mother decided to move her four children to Los Angeles, then Portland, to be nearer to her family. Although Morris says hed never seen a basketball while living in Nebraska, he was a tall kid, and he took up the sport to help ease his transition to his new schools. His penchant for shooting hoops stuckthe American Hospital Association, an organization for which Morris served on the board of trustees for five years, reports that Morris would arrange pickup basketball games during breaks in board activities.


Morris attended the University of Oregon from 1966 to 1970, graduating with a degree in finance. His business acumen was evident even thenhe sold shares in a 54 Buick to fellow students so that they all could drive the car to San Francisco for spring break, he says.


Those were years of turmoil on college campuses nationwide, however, and it affected MorrisIt was hard to think about getting a real job after that, he says.


So, he and his wife, Lynn, whom he married shortly after graduating, took off for Europe, then spent two years in the Volunteers In Service To America (VISTA) program on the Kalispel Indian Reservation in northeastern Washington. The couple lived in a room in the tribes community center with only a waterbed, a toaster oven, and a hot plate to call their own.


The experience was not quite what my mother-in-law had in mind for her daughter, Morris deadpans.


The couple was charged with providing economic-development assistance to the Kalsipel tribe, and the endeavor was successful enough that when their duty was over, they recommended they not be replaced because the tribe was moving forward independently.


Morris then began thinking about what he wanted to do for a career, and looked into hospital administration, an investigation that led him to discuss the field with Sister Peter Claver, the longtime administrator of Sacred Heart Medical Center here.


He spent two years in graduate school at UW, then returned to Spokane to complete the residency portion of the program at Sacred Heart. While here, he visited Kootenai Medical Center, which at that time was called Kootenai Memorial Hospital. An assistant administrator position opened at the Coeur dAlene hospital, and he got the job.


Emphasis on technology


Dr. Duane Daugharty, a retired Coeur dAlene physician, joined KMCs board of trustees four years after Morris arrived, and as a board member was one of the people who promoted Morris to the top position when his predecessor, Robert Jepson, left in 1981.


Hes just extraordinarily bright, Daugharty says of Morris. Hes really up to date, very intelligent, well-organized, and he has accumulated a great staff. I hate to tell you all this because someone may try to hire him, but he just does a very good job.


Dr. Robert Farr, an ear, nose and throat specialist who was KMCs chief of staff in 1999-2000, says Morris is very forward-thinking, especially when it comes to technology, and initiatives spurred by him have resulted in the hospital winning accolades for its use of technology.


Whats more, hes a good people person, he relates to people well, Farr says. To be the CEO of a hospital this size, I think you have to be successful at that.


Morris says his first years as CEO at KMC were tumultuous, to say the least.


The hospital no sooner had embarked on a $25 million expansion when it was hit with a one-two punch of a change in the Medicare reimbursement formula, which reduced the amount of money the hospital received from that federal insurance program by 40 percent, and the closure of the Bunker Hill mine, one of North Idahos largest employers.


People were moving out of Kootenai County, Morris says. By the time we took on the full debt of the building project, in 1985, we had lost one-third of our patient days. It made it pretty tough for us to make it financially.


That year, 1985, was the only year in KMCs history that it lost money, and it was a humbling experience that made him more fiscally conservative, Morris says.


It also made him more politically active, determined to address the Medicare situation that let Valley Hospital & Medical Center just a few miles away collect 40 percent more from Medicare for the same services that KMC provided, he says.


Morris was successful in his lobbying effort, and the Coeur dAlene hospital now is classified as part of Spokane for Medicare reimbursement purposes.


Although stressful for Morris personally, KMCs construction push in the early 1980swhich created the notable blue structure that stands todayhelped forge a new identity for the hospital that helped it attract physicians and keep in Coeur dAlene patients who previously might have opted to go to Spokane for health care.


As part of that latter effort, Morris also believed it was important to give patients more reasons to stay in Coeur dAlene. To boost patient volumes, KMC launched new programs in cancer care, neurosurgery, and psychiatric care, and those three areas still account for a significant part of the hospitals volume, he says.


By 1995, KMC was able to pay off the rest of its construction bonds from the 1985 projects and build up reserves, so that it was able to embark on its current slate of expansion projects using mostly cash it generates. One of those projects is an about 21,000-square-foot structure that will house the North Idaho Heart Center, which is expected to be finished in May, and a 300-to-500 car parking garage, which is still in the planning stages.


The expansion project this time around has been different in another way, tooI have a much better executive team, so it really takes the load off of me, Morris says.


Offers elsewhere


Morris says hes received job offers elsewhere during his time at KMC, but in each case, family concerns prevailed, and he, his wife, and two (now grown) kids opted to stay in North Idaho.


Over the years hes been involved in many community organizations, such as sitting on the boards of Jobs Plus, the Coeur dAlene Chamber of Commerce, Hospice of North Idaho, and the Inland Northwest Blood Center, and chairing various Coeur dAlene School District committees.


He and his family lived on acreage in Kootenai County until a few years ago, when they moved to a lakefront home. Commuting during the winter became a problem, though, so Morris and his wife recently bought a residence just a few blocks from downtown Coeur dAlene where they now live part of the time.


In 33 years of marriage wed never had garbage service before moving into town, Morris says. We were fascinated by the fact that the mail is delivered to a box by your door, and doesnt require a hike down a snowy lane to retrieve it.


Despite the multitude of problems plaguing the health-care industryand a well-publicized dust-up two years ago with a group of doctors who established a competing specialty surgical hospital in Post FallsMorris says he still likes to come to work every day.


Hospitals are a fun place to work, he says. Theyre really a blend of my finance degree and VISTA. He adds that it would be hard to find another hospital that offers as much to an administrator as KMC, citing the Coeur dAlene hospitals stable finances, top-notch medical staff, and community support.


Plus, Morris says, I can boat to work.

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