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CORY BYKNISH | Herald

Don Owrey will take over as chief operating officer at UPMC Susquehanna and president of UPMC Williamsport Regional Medical Center.

GREENVILLE – As Don Owrey worked Friday at his office at UPMC Horizon, the hospital president said he was ready to take on a new role across the state.

But he jokingly acknowledged one potential problem.

“I’ve never lived more than 30 minutes from where I was born,’’ said Owrey, a New Castle native. “I’m stepping out in the big ocean.’’ 

After a decade as president at UPMC Horizon and two years heading UPMC Jameson in New Castle, the hospital system announced Tuesday that Owrey would take over as chief operating officer at UPMC Susquehanna and president of UPMC Williamsport Regional Medical Center.

He will take the new post Sept. 1 and UPMC officials said they are launching an internal search to fill the joint Horizon and Jameson posts by mid-August.

Owrey will be overseeing 6,000 employees in his new job, which has seven locations, including its flagship operation at UPMC Williamsport Regional Medical Center. He now manages a staff 3,000 at the UPMC Horizon hospitals in Farrell and Greenville, and UPMC Jameson, along with physician practices and outpatient centers.

There were difficult times in the early days, Owrey said. He took the helm at Horizon a year after its Greenville birthing unit was closed. Patients were referred to its Farrell hospital which had expanded and upgraded its birth center.

It didn’t go down easy for the greater Greenville population.

“Those wounds were still fresh,’’ Owrey said of the birthing unit closure.

Even worse, there were constant rumors UPMC planned to shut down the Greenville hospital. While those rumors have subsided over the years, they haven’t completely gone away.

“Greenville isn’t closing,’’ he said. “I’ve been dealing with this for 10 years. It’s not closing.’’

As proof, Owrey points to UPMC’s investment, including construction of a Hillman Cancer Center facility, at UPMC Horizon in Greenville. 

“And more money will be invested here,’’ Owrey said.

A similar Hillman Center has opened at UPMC Horizon in Farrell. Owrey administered the expansion and upgrade completed last year at the Farrell hospital’s emergency room.

While all three hospitals are the product of traditions, Owrey said he didn’t have the luxury of depending on the past.

“You can’t go back there,’’ he said. “You have to create your future or there isn’t one.’’

Owrey said he faced a challenge retaining doctors at Horizon. 

“We could attract great physicians to work here,’’ he said. “But we had a hard time keeping them.’’

The hospital administration changed that, he said, by reaching out and listening to input from the doctors and other staff. Equally important, he added, is talking to them about UPMC’s plans for the local hospital.

During his time at the Horizon and Jameson Hospitals, Owrey said he has encountered challenges, including the aftermath of UPMC’s purchase of Jameson Hospital.

Jameson holds powerful memories for Owrey, who was born at the New Castle hospital. While he attended Thiel College in Greenville, Owrey worked in the hospital’s laundry room for a time.

As president, he has helped put the hospital on sound footing.

UPMC acquired the hospital on May 1, 2016, after a year-long battle with the state Attorney General’s office, which opposed the purchase because of fears that a UPMC-Jameson merger would have a stranglehold on health care in Lawrence County.

An arbitrator’s decision decided the UPMC acquisition was the best way to preserve Jameson Hospital and the jobs of its 1,300 employees.

“The state viewed us as having too much market share and that we were full of false promises,’’ he said. “UPMC saved access to healthcare not only here (Jameson), but for this whole region.’’

As part of the sale, UPMC promised to invest $70 million at Jameson over a 10-year span, and have spent more than $50 million since the acquisition.

UPMC resuscitated Jameson School of Nursing by giving it a new location in Neshannock Township from its previous location next to the hospital. In recent years, the nursing school’s enrollment had declined to 16 students.

This fall, though, the school has signed up 94 students, for a total enrollment of 127, he said. UPMC Jameson’s nursing school offers a 16-month registered nurse diploma program and a four-year bachelor’s degree in nursing through a partnership with Westminster College.

Also, Jameson opened a new outpatient center in Union Township on Owrey’s watch.

“There weren’t that many services out there,’’ he said of the area west of New Castle. “And its become a very busy site.’’

Owrey promised that he won’t change his management style when he arrives at Williamsport.

“I want to be as transparent as possible,’’ he said. “If you don’t tell people what you’re doing, the things you’re doing will lead them to speculate – and it’s usually wrong.’’

As he takes a leadership role at Susquehanna, Owrey said he wants to build on what the system has already accomplished since UPMC purchased it in 2016.

“They’re still new to UPMC,’’ Owrey said. “I think I can help accelerate their clinical operations. But they’ve already gone through some of the same regionalization that we’ve gone through here. And they’ve done a lot in integrating their services.’’

He said his role will include building up sales for UPMC Health Plan, UPMC’s health insurance arm.

Owrey said he’s already feeling a twinge of emotion in leaving a hospital system that he guided, and the region he has always called home.

‘‘It’s bittersweet,’’ he said of leaving. “This isn’t about me. It’s about a group of people here who care deeply about their community.’’

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