Jerry Cobb went from helping save lives as an emergency medical technician for an ambulance company to helping save the local hospital as a trustee for Shoshone Medical Center in Kellogg, Idaho.
Cobb, 56, was working part-time as an EMT when he joined the Shoshone board in 1986. In the almost 20 years since, the Shoshone County hospital has ridden through an extended economic downturn in the Silver Valley where Kellogg is located, which suffered a double blow when the area lost most of its mining jobs while having to clean up the pollution that mining had created. There were several times when Shoshone Medical Center, a 25-bed critical-access facility, was close to death.
"The hospital was suffering when I got on (the board) in '86 and things weren't getting any better," Cobb says.
But Cobb, in his roles as a Shoshone trustee, a state government employee and a community leader, has been instrumental in keeping Shoshone afloat during perilous times and in cleaning the local environment ahead of what looks to be a tourist boom. Cobb, whose family roots in the region go back to the late 1800s, has devoted his professional and much of his personal life to the betterment of the area.
For those reasons and others, Cobb was named Modern Healthcare 2005 Trustee of the Year for facilities with fewer than 250 beds or less than $75 million in annual revenue. The competition is co-sponsored by Witt/Kieffer, a national healthcare executive search firm.
"The whole community is fortunate to have that guy. He's something special," says Gary Moore, chief executive officer at Shoshone and the person who nominated Cobb.
Cobb's steadying hand on the board and experience dealing with government bureaucracy was critical in allowing Shoshone Medical and the community to begin a move out of its century-old mining era. And he did so in two roles: as environmental health supervisor for the Panhandle Health District-a centralized health district for multiple counties-and as trustee for the medical center.
Regional boom, then bust
Cobb's contributions to the Silver Valley area are tied to both community health and the hospital's recovery from multiple near-death experiences. The region's economic and environmental problems can be traced to the late 1800s when gold was found, which was followed by the discovery of lead. By 1916, what was called the Bunker Hill smelter was built, allowing Shoshone County to become a major producer of lead. At one point, Bunker Hill accounted for 30% of the nation's lead supply, Cobb says.
But after years of mining and a fire in the 1970s, the amounts of lead found in the bloodstream of area children and in the ground was high enough that the federal government gave the region a Superfund designation in the 1980s after the closure of the smelter.
Through the Panhandle Health District, Cobb has played a major role in getting lead removed from the region, a $200 million project that has taken years of coordination of government, commerce and the community. "It's a huge project," Cobb says. "It's kind of like herding cats sometimes."
The project settled on a plan of removing the top 12 inches of soil from the three to six feet of contaminated dirt. As a result, continued management is required in situations where people or companies dig below that one-foot level.
The results have been tremendous. Blood-lead levels in area children have improved from an average of almost five times recommended levels in 1974 to being 65% below the recommended level in 2000, according to the state of Idaho. And soil lead concentrations took a similar steep dive.
Hospital follows community's path
At the same time that Cobb battled the dangerous pollution problem, he was fighting for Shoshone's survival. "To this day, I am amazed that hospital is still there," Cobb says. "That facility could have closed at least a dozen times that I'm aware of and there were probably more that I'm not aware of," he says.
Shoshone suffered for years along with the community after the lead mines were closed in 1981. "When you lose that kind of job base and your heavy industry is closing, it just leaves a tremendous hole," Cobb says. The center was losing money because the hospital was competing with another local hospital, the depressed economy meant more residents didn't have insurance and those that did were leaving town for their healthcare needs. There were several times when the hospital was down to zero cash balances, Cobb says.
In fact, Shoshone had a zero cash balance and net assets of $1.9 million in November 2001 just as it was converting to critical-access status, according to hospital officials. As of November 2004, net assets stood at $3.7 million and cash on hand was $1.2 million.
Cobb helped steer the hospital through community upheaval regarding the management of the hospital, which eventually turned to an outside management company, QHR, which was how Moore came to be CEO. Moore says that when he arrived, "the hospital was in survival mode and borrowed a lot of money just to make payroll."
"When I came, I knew (Shoshone) had potential. But I rented for two years," Moore says, describing how tenuous he believed his job could be. "I was very happy the day my wife and I bought a house," he says.
And it was Cobb's leadership on the board that helped the medical center pull through, Moore says. Cobb was important in Shoshone's decision to look beyond its near term problems to recognize that its aging facility would not allow it to prosper. "He was the first one to say, `Any money we put into this old hospital is going to be wasted,' " Moore says.
Even then, the Shoshone board had to construct its $10 million replacement building the hard way, navigating the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Section 242 hospital loan program, borrowing a total of $18 million. Cobb's experience working with the government on the Superfund program helped him deal with red tape that "can be extremely frustrating" to the average person, Moore says.
But he says Cobb is not one to try to grab credit. "He is very humble," Moore says. And Cobb says other board members and community leaders have also been instrumental in the hospital's and region's resurgence.
'To this day, I am amazed that hospital is still there. That facility could have closed at least a dozen times that I'm aware of.'--Jerry Cobb, trustee, Shoshone Medical Center