Longtime CEO Reflects on 35 Years in Health Care
It was 1981 and a gallon of gas cost $1.25, Ronald Reagan was president and Intercommunity Hospital in Fairfield was happy just to offer basic medical care.
It was a small, one-hospital system, opened in 1960, but unequipped medically to handle complex trauma cases or severe heart attacks. All sick and premature infants were routinely sent out of county for care. There was only one part-time rehabilitation therapist and pharmacy services were contracted out.
Then Gary Passama became CEO. Over the course of the next 35 years, everything changed. “The mindset at the time was that we are happy being a small hospital, but the board of directors had very different plans, and so did I,” admitted Gary, who is planning to retire March 31.
“I came thinking it would be a great stepping stone in my career, but it turned out that all the great opportunities were happening here.”
VacaValley Hospital has always been my baby. How often has any CEO been able to create a brand new hospital?
In that 35-year window, Gary has seen construction of a second hospital, creation of a cancer center, establishment of the centers for neuroscience, heart and vascular and trauma, as well as a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, a Wellness Center, a physician group that now has more than 110 providers, and much more.
When he was hired, his board of directors had two imperatives: Help the hospital get with the times by offering more advanced medicine; and take care of the “Vacaville problem.”
He took the job and quickly realized that the medical staff needed some young blood. “I ruffled some feathers in the beginning, but it had to be done. I brought in younger doctors with fresh ideas. It wasn’t just making a hire or two—it was really changing the culture.”
It was also about challenging the competition.
Gary noticed quickly the number of tiny babies being sent to San Francisco for care. Having to travel to be with their newborns placed a huge burden on the families. But when NorthBay decided it wanted to start a neonatal intensive care unit, officials from Mount Zion Hospital protested loud and long.
“I got tired of being told we can’t do it. Even our own staff had to adopt a new mindset. We had to fight for it; we had to recruit neonatologists, including Dr. Richard Bell, who is still with us today,” notes Gary. “But we did it, and we have a great NICU. It just made sense and it was the right thing to do.”
Today, he adds, NorthBay Healthcare’s NICU has handled nearly 6,000 tiny infants in 32 years. And Mount Zion? It’s no longer in business.
Our best times are ahead of us. We’re breaking the mindset. We are nimble enough to hear the voice of the community and to be able to put together a quick response.
– Gary Passama, CEO
Gary’s next big hurdle was the “Vacaville problem.” A good number of his board members were from Vacaville, which was the largest city in the state at that time to not have a hospital. “We opened an urgent care facility in 1983 and had an open house on a Saturday. We were swarmed! People literally lined up around the block to come and visit the building. I was shaking my head in disbelief,” he says. “I remember thinking, ‘Maybe we should be thinking bigger.'”
At the time, plans were in the works to expand NorthBay Medical Center. A vote of the board came fast and furious, and plans were scrapped in favor of resolving the “Vacaville problem” by building a hospital there. It was no easy task.
At the time, the state was operating with very strict standards for allowing new hospitals to be built. But then-Gov. George Deukmejian instructed his staff to be more lenient with approvals, as long as it was consistent with a community’s need.
Vacaville had a 50-bed need, so the proposal was made for a 50-bed hospital. “We had two books filled with letters of support. We had a public hearing and the place was packed. We even had one doctor who opposed our plan. But in the end, after a three-hour hearing, we got approval,” Gary recalls.
The next big step was to get permission from the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development. “We had no meeting scheduled, but we decided to strike while the iron was hot,” says Gary.
“We got Vacaville City Manager Walt Graham to clear his schedule. He went to Sacramento with me and our chief planner and we sat and sat in the director’s office. At some point, I told his secretary that we had the Vacaville city manager with us, and half an hour later, the director came out with our paperwork in hand.”
After that, it was a matter of finding the money. “Three years later, the hospital was built,” he notes. It opened July 1, 1987.
NorthBay Healthcare Corp. was formed to manage the two hospitals. Intercommunity Hospital in Fairfield became NorthBay Medical Center. And while it remains the mother ship, “VacaValley Hospital has always been my baby,” says Gary. “How often has any CEO been able to create a brand new hospital from the ground up?”
That same year, the NorthBay Cancer Center opened in the Gateway Medical Building (on the NorthBay Medical Center campus) with a comprehensive array of services. It flourished in Fairfield for nearly 30 years, before making its move last summer to the VacaValley Wellness Center in Vacaville. Since it opened it has served more than 14,000 cancer patients in Solano County.
Western Health Advantage (WHA) was developed in the mid-1990s because NorthBay’s leadership realized a competitive, local health plan was needed. “We partnered with several organizations in the area and spent three to four years developing it with Mercy/Dignity Health and the UC Davis Health System.”
In addition to serving Solano County, WHA has grown to include customers in Sacramento, Yolo, El Dorado, Placer, Marin, Napa and Sonoma counties.
Trauma was another specialty Gary was told NorthBay simply couldn’t offer. “But we became a Level III trauma center in 2012 and we were accredited as a Level II by the College Board of Surgeons in 2014,” he pointed out.
Gary has positioned NorthBay well to help us take on all challenges.
– Konard Jones
Other accomplishments include the creation of a Heart & Vascular Center, which opened in 2009. Shortly thereafter NorthBay Medical Center became certified as a Chest Pain Center and a Stroke Center. Open heart surgery and preventive cardiac procedures became part of everyday life in the hospital in the years that followed.
The latest in the long list of accomplishments include the opening of the Center for Neuro-science and the VacaValley Wellness Center, complete with a medical fitness center, the only one in Solano County.
“We are on the forefront, not just emphasizing wellness to our patients but giving them the tools to achieve it,” he says with pride.
NorthBay HealthSpring Fitness is a full-service center open to the general public. Highly educated trainers work with members to help create individualized fitness programs to meet their needs.
In May 2016, NorthBay announced its membership in the Mayo Clinic Care Network. Now our physicians can collaborate with Mayo Clinic specialists on complex medical cases.
“We want our friends, families and neighbors in Solano County to live longer, happier, healthier lives through access to the highest-level of medical knowledge and expertise,” said Gary. “Collaborating with others to provide patients with the best care possible is part of Mayo Clinic’s culture and part of ours.”
Reflecting back, Gary says he has been able to reach so many milestones because he always had a board of directors willing to let him make mistakes and learn from them, and the leadership of four visionary chairmen of the board, starting with B. Gale Wilson, who at the time also served as Fairfield’s City Manager.
“B. Gale really wanted to do things. He knew in order to be successful that we’d have to brand ourselves. He didn’t micromanage,” Gary remembers. “When I got here, there were three senior managers. I knew if it was going to work, I needed to build a senior team. It was a hard sell. I went to the board and asked to double the number of senior leaders. They said, ‘That’s a lot of money.’ But B. Gale said, ‘We brought him here to do a job and he’s telling us what he needs to do it. Let’s give it to him.’ You know what?” asks Gary. “I had my team in place by the end of the month.”
Other board chairmen included George Tomasini, Russ Albers, and the current Chairman of the Board Ben Huber, a former Fairfield councilman and businessman who has served in the role since 2005.
“I’ve seen the statistics,” said Ben, “and the typical hospital administrator in a system of our size averages 3.5 years. Gary has done 35. That’s phenomenal.”
Ben said Gary’s marching orders have been to make NorthBay one of the best community-based, independent health care providers in the country. “He’s done just that,” he noted.
As for the future, Gary is confident NorthBay Healthcare will be in good hands. He recommended the board consider appointing Konard Jones, who is currently president of the Hospital Division. His recommendation was accepted.
Konard was first hired by Gary in 1995 to serve as vice president of human resources. He left after 10 years, but carried on in health care, honing his skills as president and CEO of Broadline Medical Inc., and at UC San Francisco Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland, where he was vice president of professional and support services.
Konard knows the culture, the challenges and the “NorthBay Way,” says Gary. Konard says he also understands that there is much work to do, especially with so much uncertainty in health care.
“But Gary has positioned NorthBay well to help us take on all those challenges,” says Konard. “So as we come to the end of one great era and begin a new one, I will commit all my energy and passion to keeping this extraordinary health care system the leader in Solano County.”
And that’s exactly how Gary wants it. “We’re not a little hospital,” insists Gary. “Our best times are ahead of us. We’re breaking the mindset. We’re nimble enough to hear the voice of the community and to be able to put together a response in quick fashion. That’s not going to change.”
Moving through time:
Right from top, NorthBay Healthcare President/CEO Gary Passama introduces VacaValley Hospital; with four early Guild presidents; sharing plans for NorthBay Medical Center with local politicians; announcing the Heart & Vascular Center; showing support for the Pink Heals fire truck; enjoying the annual Adopt-A-School program; and, announcing that NorthBay Healthcare joined the Mayo Clinic Care Network.