Pete Watercott will step down March 31st from the Northern Inyo Healthcare District's Board of Directors after 20 years of service; the District announced Thursday morning.
Watercott, who has had a hand in everything from the development of the Rural Health Clinic, to the construction of the main two-story hospital, submitted his letter of resignation to his colleagues at Wednesday's night regular board meeting.
The move gives the District 60 days to seek letters of interest, assemble a nomination committee, and conduct interviews before appointing a replacement. The person appointed shall hold office until the next general election scheduled 130 days or more after the date of Watercott's resignation (November 2018). Watercott, whose term would have expired in November, represented Zone III, which consists of a large portion of the downtown Bishop area.
"It's a good time to pass the baton," Watercott said in an interview earlier this week. "When I first came on the board, my energy level was high. I had a lot to learn, and that was all part of it, but I think now somebody new could bring a lot of energy to the board and make a positive impact."
Watercott acknowledges that many people see him as a keeper of NIHD's institutional knowledge, but the five-term director scoffs at the idea that role is custom-made for him. "The past is important," he said. "We always have to know where we came from, but the future is the most important direction. We always have to look forward and see where we can go."
In 1998, Watercott found himself on the campaign trail after being recruited to run for the post by several then-hospital employees. Going door-to-door, he learned that healthcare issues ran deep in the community. "Over and over again, what I heard was there was no access to primary care," Watercott recalled. "And it was not limited to any one segment of our population. Everyone was seemingly struggling with the same issue."
Shortly after his election, the hospital and the County had the opportunity to work together to have Bishop designated as a Health Professional Shortage Area. That designation led the way for the creation of the Rural Health Clinic, a facility that now handles 28,000-plus visits per year.
"It was a huge deal for its time," Watercott said. "Private practice physicians saw it as a way for the hospital to compete with them, and they had to be convinced that it would serve the community well. I do think it's our biggest achievement in my time here for that reason; it solved an immediate community need."
Watercott's fondest memory from his term of service is the 2013 Grand Opening of the new two-story hospital. Having served as Board President throughout the years of construction, Watercott enjoyed the sense of accomplishment and admired the way the employees pulled together to face the challenges that inevitably came with a project of that size and scope.
"And in the end, we finally were able to say we did it – after so many times of trying," he recalled. "When voters approved the bond issuance, it was like the communities were saying just how important the hospital was to them. There was no feeling quite like that."
The challenges, as he points out, will continue to come. Physician recruitment will always be an issue. Keeping up with expensive technologies won't be easy. Change is ever-present in health care.
"But overall when I look at what we've done, and think about it meeting-by-meeting, change takes a long time," Watercott said. "It is incremental, but then when you look at it over the long term, the positive change happens when the leadership stays focused on achieving that."
Watercott complimented current leadership's focus on positive efforts. "It's an exciting time to be involved with the District," he said. "We're providing so many services now – the high school clinic, expanded women's health, infusion therapies, Same Day Care, and the CareShuttle, to name a few. We've talked about our involvement in the community, and how we can improve community health. I just feel like the opportunities are going to come up, and the District is going to be a significant player in advancing community health."
He complimented Chief Executive Officer Kevin S. Flanigan, MD MBA, for the energy he brings to his leadership position. "I just feel that since Kevin came on board, the District is pointed in the right direction. The information and continuing education the board receives are the best they've ever been. Our budget planning is no longer simply built on what we spent last year. Now we're building the budget to achieve our strategic goals for the District. All in all, the big winners in all this are the people we serve."
While he is stepping down from the Board, Watercott is not stepping away from NIHD. He will continue to serve on the board of the NIHD Foundation, the fundraising arm of the District. He will also continue as a board member with the Inyo Council for the Arts and the Laws Railroad Museum. The annual summertime Willow Street Neighborhood Party, in its 21st year, will continue to be hosted by Pete and his wife, Kathryn Erickson. And, of course, you will see Pete just "fiddlin' around.”
Yet, those first few post-resignation meeting nights won't go unnoticed in Watercott's heart.
"It's been such an honor to be a part of the 'one team' at NIHD," he said. "We call it 'one team' now, but in reality, it's always been one team. Everyone from the physicians to the nursing staff, to all the support employees are compassionate and caring, and they want to provide great patient care. It's been an amazing honor to have served on the board and had a hand in improving healthcare for our community."