Rich Roodman still innovating at Valley Medical | 30 years at the helm

Rich Roodman stops to visit  while walking through Valley General Hospital in June 1983. - Archival photo
Rich Roodman stops to visit while walking through Valley General Hospital in June 1983.
— image credit: Archival photo

Thirty years ago, Rich Roodman set foot in Valley General Hospital. He was 34 years old and even then his pay was controversial.

Today, Valley General is Valley Medical Center, an expansive center of healing that intends to take medical care for the people of South King County to the next level with its affiliation with UW Medicine.

Roodman is 64 and the hospital once known as “Death Valley” is an award-winner with its staff and patients. When he was hired, Roodman was charged with four things: Innovate, evolve, implement and be successful.

“Sure, I can do that,” he told Morton Hardwick, then the chair of the hospital commission, during a job interview in fall 1982. Hardwick told Roodman about Valley’s “image problem.”

Roodman has kept his promise, although it wasn’t done without controversy, political fallout or trips to the woodshed.

A relaxed Roodman spoke with candor, his trademark humor and pride about his 30 years at the helm of Valley Medical Center in a wide-ranging interview with the Renton Reporter. It wasn’t an exit interview; Roodman still has work to do. And he’s having fun.

“My fingerprints are all over this place,” he said. “At some point, some days, I come in here and it feels like it was yesterday that I started.”

During the hiring process back in 1982, he learned what it meant to go through a public hiring process and the controversy that was brewing over his pay. In fact the hospital board had to move its meeting to the cafeteria to accommodate the expected large crowd and TV crews to consider his hiring.

Roodman’s first day was Monday, Jan. 3, 1983. He called his first meeting – with the union stewards. The unions were mad, he said. Then he ran to meetings with physicians and then community members. He had dinner with administrators the night before.

Communications and marketing became a hallmark of his administration.

And he formed a Consumer Advisory Council, not unlike the President’s Advisory Council, convened in 2010 to study the future of health care in South King County, helping to mold the criteria for a strategic alliance.

In the interview with the Renton Reporter, Roodman talked about his accomplishments and mistakes.

The annexation

His biggest mistake? “Well, that’s an open door,” he said, laughing.

“Oh, I would say that [he paused for a few seconds] I would say that our most colossal mistake was thinking that there may be a chance to annex to the southeastern part of the district,” he said.

In 2006 the hospital district placed a measure on the May ballot, asking for voter approval to annex Maple Valley, Black Diamond and part of Enumclaw into the hospital district. It was an unprecedented loss – 94 percent voted against the measure, which had stirred intense community opposition.

“That was a terrible mistake, because only 6 percent of the people voted in favor of that and I’ll bet you that more than 6 percent of the people think that the sun comes up in the west and sets in the east,” he said.

A critic of the annexation at the time was Anthony Hemstad, then Maple Valley’s city manager who is now vice president of the Public Hospital District No. 1 Board of Commissioners.

Roodman is an idea man. Some of his ideas pan out, some don’t.

“I don’t get an A on everything I try. Some are A-minuses, some are Bs some are C-minuses and sometimes you fail,” he said. A boss once told him that everyone has their fair share of good ideas. If the planets align, then everything works out.

But what if the planets don’t align?

“The guy who is successful is the one who knows what to do when something goes wrong, because then you have to figure out how to pick up the pieces and put Humpty Dumpty back together again,” he said.

“It’s important to learn from one’s mistakes, to learn from C-pluses, because not every decision is an A,” he said.

Roodman was hired in late 1982 as superintendent of Public Hospital District No. 1, which owns Valley Medical Center. He stepped down from that position in November 2011 to become CEO of Valley Medical Center under the strategic alliance with UW Medicine.

At 29 he was CEO of a not-for-profit hospital in Oklahoma, the youngest CEO in the Southwest for a hospital of that size.

Roodman wasn’t familiar with the workings of a public hospital district – including the highly public process to hire a new superintendent requiring not one, but two meetings. He had a letter offering him the job in Renton and he had already resigned his job in Oklahoma. But he was worried after getting a call from a reporter; he was on the phone to Hardwick.

Taking care of details

Hardwick, the commission chairman, kept reassuring Roodman that the commission was just taking care of details. He did tell Roodman the board was going to have to move a meeting to the cafeteria because the board room was too small to hold a big crowd. Roodman asked why he was expecting a big crowd.

“He said, ‘I think we’re going to have a whole bunch of people show up and they are going to protest’,” Roodman said. “And the KKK is coming.”

Roodman asked Hardwick to explain that reference: KOMO, KING and KIRO, the Seattle TV stations.

There were protests about Roodman’s salary; commissioners hired Roodman at an annual salary of $95,000, which at the time made Roodman the highest paid official overseeing a public facility in the county, according to media reports.

“We swallowed hard and decided the hospital deserves an administrator that’s worth that much. That’s the least we could get this man for,” commissioner Leo Powers said in an interview at the time.

Today, Roodman’s salary is about $1.2 million, including a base salary of $753,766. The rest is his retention payment and performance award. He remains in the upper tier of pay for hospital administrators.

Does he think he’s worth the money? “I think you generally get what you pay for,” he said.

After he was hired, Roodman and his staff got down to work, building partnerships with the City of Renton, the Renton School District, Renton Technical College and the Renton Chamber of Commerce and reaching out to the community.

And he began to build the medical center campus as it exists today.

In 1984 Valley started the Valley Family Medicine residency program, affiliated with UW Medicine, with one or two residents. It was a way to grow Valley’s own physicians and the idea had worked in Oklahoma.

“Well, like just about everything along the way that became significant over the 30 years, at its first introduction it met with a tremendous amount of resistance,” Roodman said. Current family practitioners feared the competition; but specialists saw this as a source of new referrals.

A place for docs

It’s the same philosophy that helped drive the formation of the strategic alliance with UW Medicine. Valley Medical Center has a network of primary care clinics that feeds local specialists at the hospital, but now patients have easy access to the extensive specialties at the University of Washington.

“You gotta have docs in order to grow health care,” Roodman said.

Of course, the hospital needed a place for those doctors to practice. In 1989 the Talbot Professional Building opened as a joint venture between the hospital district and physicians.

“We created a win-win situation with physicians to invest in a facility on campus,” Roodman said.

The hospital district owns the land and the parking, which are leased to the physicians who borrowed the money to build the medical building. Southlake Clinic is in the building and Dr. Paul Joos, an eye surgeon and president of the hospital commission, has his offices at the main entrance to the building.

“Any significant medical center throughout the country has medical office buildings on campus,” Roodman said.

Two years later the hospital district worked with another group of physicians to develop the Medical Arts Building next door. And the North Professional Building houses Valley Family Medicine; it was being built privately when Roodman arrived in 1983.

Two years ago, in February 2010, Valley opened its new seven-story, $115 million Emergency Services Tower – the Margarita Prentice Trauma Center. Today, Valley every year sees about 75,000 visits in its ER – more than Harborview, which sees more trauma patients than Valley. Valley’s urgent-care clinics see about 50,000 visits a year.

And then there are the babies. Lots of babies.

Valley’s state-of-the-art Birth Center and Neonatal Intensive Care Unit are what Roodman calls one of the “essential building blocks” for the future of any regional medical center.

Before the center was built, Valley was delivering about 2,600 babies a year. Now that number is about 4,800. “That’s a reflection of ‘If you build it, they will come,’” he said.

While Roodman talks about concrete and steel, he also talks about Valley’s “secret sauce.”

On staff are about 200 physicians and about 100 more on contract to work exclusively at Valley, he said, and even more have a business relationship with Valley through the medical office buildings.

The secret sauce

“We have integrated with these physicians, but at the same time I think, personally, what I am proudest of is the environment as a place to work,” he said. Thank you notes from patients come not because of a piece of equipment or software, he said, but because of the people who care for them.

“That’s the secret sauce. It’s the people,” he said, and having a “good place to work.” Valley is regularly at the top of Best Places to Work lists in the nation.

“If the staff is happy, they will do anything to facilitate a good patient experience,” he said.

Roodman has taken his hits from critics and the legal system over the years. Did he take it personally?

“Sure, before I was a hospital CEO I was a person,” he said. “And as a person you couldn’t help but take it personally. But actually I think that that makes me pay attention and focus and try harder.”

Over the years Roodman has been courted by other medical centers; the last serious contact was about five years ago from Southern California.

He has said no. “What brought me here is what still keeps me here in a professional way. That is to innovate, evolve and implement,” he said.

The decision was made pretty simple, he said, when his wife Cheryl (a former marketing executive at Valley Medical) said she didn’t want to move and the kids said, “Are you crazy.”

Roodman of Mercer Island has five children, Adam, 36, Lindsay, 34, Amanda, 27, Allie, 20, and Madison, 17, and three grandchildren.

Roodman still has work to do at Valley, mainly seeing through the implementation of the strategic alliance with UW Medicine that will take three to five years.

“As long as I have the energy and the health and it’s fun, I think I am in the game,” he said.

He declined to comment on a legal challenge by the hospital commission against UW Medicine over the alliance that could end up in the state Supreme Court. But he spoke out about the alliance itself.

“The affiliation with the university has been a godsend,” Roodman said. “And I think it will be the single best thing that will propel health care here in the south end more than any of these other things.”

Will the alliance be his legacy as CEO of Valley Medical Center?

“I hope so,” he said, and then a little quieter, “I hope so.”

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