When 18-year-old Larry Mullins enlisted in the Marine Corps in the summer of 1968, he knew two things: In the short term, he wanted to serve his country. Over the long run, he wanted to do something meaningful with his life.

By anyone’s measure, Mullins has not only met, but exceeded those expectations.

Over the last 25 years, Mullins and a team of managers including Becky Pape, Steve Jasperson, David Triebes, Marty Cahill, Julie Manning, Alan Yordy and Ron Stevens, in addition to dedicated board members, have put together a multifaceted health care system — Samaritan Health Services — that stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the Cascade mountains.

They created a billion-dollar health care network of hospitals, clinics, fitness centers and specialty care facilities.

Working with Linn and Benton counties and others, they also launched a successful coordinated care organization, which administers health care to Oregon Health Plan (Medicaid) clients in three counties.

But beginning on Jan. 1, Mullins turns over the keys of all that he helped build to Doug Boysen, currently the system’s chief administrative officer.

“I feel good about where the system is and where I am,” Mullins said as he and staff members took a break from clearing his office at Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center in Corvallis. “It has been a great transition.”

But Mullins isn’t leaving the Samaritan family entirely. His new role as founder and CEO of the Samaritan Solutions Institute will keep him in the loop, although his new office will be in Samaritan Square, not at Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center.

In his new post, Mullins will teach other health care leaders how to put together programs that have served Samaritan Health Services well, and bring political and business leaders together to tackle other key issues.

“I can’t say that I would do things much differently,” Mullins said of his 25-year career at Samaritan. “It all turned out pretty well. I think we’ve been inclusive and we’ve had a lot of positive outcomes.”

Mullins said he might have focused more at times on family life, instead of being so intently focused on pulling together an organization of 5,000 employees.

“I’m a guy who believes in second chances and am glad I had the opportunity to do so,” Mullins said.

Hard, honest work

Mullins’ rise to lead a major health care network in the rainy Pacific Northwest started in the arid desert Southwest. Although he was born in Ohio, Mullins grew up in sprawling Phoenix, Arizona, in a working-class family.

It was his father — a custodian at local assisted living facilities — who taught him the value of hard, honest work.

“He got me a job stripping and waxing floors at a care facility and one night, after a football game, I skipped stripping the floors and just washed and waxed them,” Mullins said. “I went to bed and a short time later, he woke me up and said I needed to go finish my job. He knew that I hadn’t done it right because I came home too early. That’s the kind of guy he was.”

Mullins said he was an “average student” and focused more on football and track than hitting the textbooks.

“I joined the Marines because I wanted to serve my country, but also because I knew the G.I. Bill would help me pay for college when I got out,” he said.

He was trained as an infantryman and was shipped to South Vietnam after boot camp.

“It made you grow up very, very quickly,” Mullins said. “I remember a firefight when it all became very serious, very sobering.”

He spent 11 months in Vietnam with the 26th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division and earned the rank of corporal.

For the last six months of his two-year enlistment, he worked in administration at the El Toro Air Base in southern California.

“It was really fortunate for me,” Mullins said. “I got to be around other vets who had gone through the same things as I had and to decompress before going back into the general public.”

Mullins has never forgotten his time in the military and has supported several military-oriented programs individually and through his work, including PAYS (Partnership for Youth Success) that helps veterans transition into jobs when they get home. Last year, he hosted the Marine Corps Ball at the Boulder Falls Conference Center.

He has even parachuted from an airplane with the Army’s Golden Knights.

Shift to health care

When Mullins went back home to Arizona, he enrolled at a local community college with the idea of becoming a teacher and football coach.

But a part-time job as a hospital orderly soon shifted his focus to health care. He earned an associate degree and was certified as a registered nurse after studying at Glendale Community College.

He transferred to Arizona State University, where he earned a degree in health sciences.

He and Barbara, also a registered nurse, were married in 1971 and have two children. Rob and Jennifer. They also have two grandsons, Garrett and Jackson, who live in Flagstaff, Arizona.

“I worked full-time and went to school full-time,” Mullins said.

He went on to earn a master’s degree in educational psychology from Northern Arizona University and in 2003, a doctorate in health administration from the Medical University of South Carolina.

His early years were spent working clinically as a registered nurse, “but I kept getting promoted into management,” and soon he found himself as an assistant administrator at Valley View Community Hospital in Arizona.

“It was a lot like Samaritan Lebanon Community Hospital,” Mullins said. “I guess that’s why I’ve always had a soft spot for Lebanon.”

Mullins was promoted to administrator and in the early 1990s built a new 88-bed hospital complex and was promoted to regional vice president.

“I knew by then that I wanted to be fully accountable and to grow personally and as the head of a growing organization,” Mullins said.

That’s when he noticed an advertisement in The Wall Street Journal. Good Samaritan Hospital in Corvallis was looking for a new leader.

“I had never been to the Pacific Northwest, but I had a sense that this needed to be explored,” Mullins said.

The interview turned into a “very exhausting” two days.

“I decided I was going to be myself and to be real,” Mullins said. “I was very forthright about my goals.”

Challenge and opportunity

Mullins said the talk around the state at the time focused on the Oregon Health Plan, but for several years he had been formulating his own plan about how health care services should be changed.

“Our trade model was extremely challenged,” Mullins said. “I saw this as an opportunity to build something good. I got a lot of interesting reactions from others. I believed that most people wanted to do something better for their communities, but they couldn’t stand alone to do it.”

The Good Samaritan board members liked what they saw and in 1992, Mullins took over a $75 million system. Today, Samaritan Health Services is a $1 billion operation.

Mullins’ concept for development of localized health care system was as old as the invention of the wheel itself.

“I envisioned a hub-and-spoke system,” Mullins said. “In my mind, it would spread both the risk and the gain.”

He and other system leaders spent the next five years building a framework for what they believed a successful system would look like. In 1996, the board approved the Samaritan Health Services name and new logo and in 1997, Mullins was named president and CEO.

Mullins said much of those first five years was spent listening to others.

“It was very interesting listening to everyone’s perspective about the history of their organizations,” Mullins said. “Then, we needed to get everyone to look for commonalities and that really came down to everyone wanting to better serve their respective communities.”

In June 1997, Lebanon Community Hospital became the first hospital to come on board. Although the Lebanon hospital was financially stable, other small hospitals like it across the country were closing by the hundreds.

To continue as a stand-alone facility would have been a huge challenge.

Bob Adams, now a retired pharmacist, has served on the Lebanon hospital board since 1969 and was instrumental in the merger with Good Samaritan Hospital and the creation of Samaritan Health Services.

Adams said it was inevitable that Lebanon Community Hospital would have to eventually merge with a bigger health care operation.

“Health care was getting too complicated and too complex for Lebanon to survive,” Adams said. “We would not have been able to keep up with the industry.”

Focus and vision

Adams said it’s important that people recognize that Lebanon and Corvallis and later Albany all came into the Samaritan Health Services family “as equals. We all contributed five of our local board members to the corporate board. The corporate board is not weighted toward the larger hospitals.”

Adams called Mullins a “very visionary person. He has done so many things that are outstanding and way off the grid from other hospitals. But at the forefront of everything has been offering top-notch health care. That’s always Larry’s focus.”

In 1999 Albany General Hospital merged with Samaritan Health Services. Between 2000 and 2002, Samaritan finalized management agreements with Samaritan North Lincoln Hospital in Lincoln City and Samaritan Pacific Coast Hospital in Newport.

“There were so many uncertainties in health care at the time,” Mullins said. “We’ve been together 20 years, but the big question is what would health care in the mid-valley look like if we weren’t together?”

Although there were many unknowns along the path of developing what is today’s Samaritan Health Services, Mullins said the decision to shift the smaller hospitals into a Critical Access Hospital status was perhaps the most difficult to sell.

The designation caps the number of beds at 25, but provides a stronger funding base for the hospitals.

In the case of Samaritan Health Services, patients who need more intensive care can be transferred to the larger hospitals in Albany and Corvallis, where more specialists are based. 

But unlike some other business models that siphon income away from their outlying brick and mortar entities to feed the larger mothership, Samaritan Health Services hospitals function independently in many ways. Every hospital has undergone or is undergoing major remodeling, or in the case of the coastal hospitals, entirely new buildings.

Samaritan Lebanon Community Hospital, for example, is wrapping up a $14 million emergency rooms expansion. New hospitals are being constructed in both Lincoln City and Newport and Albany General Hospital has had several upgrades over the years.

A large clinic was built in North Albany several years ago to provide access to that growing area of the mid-valley.

Legacy of change

If Mullins’ tenure could be summarized in one word, “change” would have to be it.

“Change is always difficult for most people,” Mullins said. “You have to build trust to make change. The key is bringing together great leaders and getting them to see the vision for the future. What’s rewarding is seeing things go the way they are supposed to and for us, that means saving lives.”

While others were pondering how to generate income the traditional way, Mullins helped lure the Western University of Health Sciences medical school (COMP-Northwest) to Lebanon, anchoring what is now the Samaritan Health Sciences Campus.

Linn-Benton Community College recently completed a health occupations center next to COMP-Northwest as well.

The synergy with the medical school and the hospital helped convince state and federal officials that the Edward C. Allworth Veterans Home should be built in Lebanon next to the medical campus, which now features ancillary medical services, businesses and numerous apartments.

The first SamFit health center was built on the campus in 2011 with an expectation of 300 members.

Today, all but one of the Samaritan hospital communities has a SamFit and total enrollment tops 10,000 members. The philosophy has helped Samaritan earn several awards as one of the healthiest places to work.

And there is an award-winning hotel Boulder Falls Inn and conference center, where Mullins will lead programs sponsored by the Samaritan Solutions Institute.

“We kept getting asked by others how we did these projects in rural communities,” Mullins said of the institute’s beginnings. “The health campus is a great place to show our outcomes. They can see it in real time, see the location and talk about how we did it. Our system can be replicated in different ways and places.”

Mullins said Samaritan is a “representative-based system, not a dominant management system. It’s not easier to manage, but it works. We govern through consensus.”

All of the pieces — the spokes — feed into and out of the hub.

Each of the three valley hospitals maintain their own local board of directors and five members from each of those boards sit on the overall corporate board. The hospitals on the coast are managed by Samaritan and have their own health district boards.

But not all projects are income-driven.

In 2004, Samaritan Lebanon Community Hospital dedicated a “healing garden” constructed boulder-by-boulder by internationally known designer Hoichi Kurisu.

The garden was the first of several now gracing Samaritan facilities. They have garnered international attention for helping promote healing among patients and tranquility among visiting families and staff.

Overcoming distrust

Some of Samaritan's moves have drawn controversy in the mid-valley, but even people who haven't always seen eye-to-eye with Mullins say he had a vision for the enterprise.

Dr. Mike Huntington has practiced medicine in Corvallis since 1984 and said he fees "very lucky that I was able to work with Larry while he was CEO of Samaritan Health. It was a wonder to watch him in action.”

Huntington said Mullins was among the first administrators to recognize that it was in the best interest of the individual hospitals to control their own destinies than to be “picked off one-by-one” by large health care groups.

“I had a front row seat and watched Larry, (former legislator) Frank Morse and Father Bill McCarthy, plus leaders from the Lebanon hospital sit around a table and figure out a way to combine their interests,” Huntington said. “It was not an easy time. There had been long-term competition between the Albany and Corvallis hospitals — perhaps even some distrust — but they figured it out.”

Huntington said that he doesn’t always agree with Mullins about how health care should be funded.

“Larry had a vision that was way ahead of most of us,” Huntington said. “He doesn’t trust any one source to make sure his hospitals stay in the black financially, so he has cultivated non-medical businesses such as the hotel and apartments. I say we should not have to rent out medical equipment to make sure our hospitals stay open and I think he would agree with that.”

Huntington said he hopes Mullins “will use that brilliant mind to figure out how we can persuade and show the general population that the best way to have a hospital when we need it is to fund it adequately through a tax, just like a public utility for the common good.”

Betty Johnson is a founding member of the Mid-Valley Health Care Advocates, an organization that has lobbied for years for a single-payer health care system.

“Over the past 20-plus years, Larry Mullins has led the development of a comprehensive array of health services in our three-county area,” Johnson said. “I appreciate his willingness to talk with local health care providers and advocates like Mid-Valley Health Care Advocates about these plans and our efforts to achieve an affordable, comprehensive, equitable, and publicly funded services for all Oregonians.”

New adventures

Mullins said he and Barbara plan to do a lot more traveling in the coming years. Their bags are already packed for their first major adventure, which starts Jan. 3. They will spend a month retracing the steps of explorer Ernest Shackelton in Antarctica.

“He’s been someone I have admired for a long time. I have read a lot about him,” Mullins said. “I have always admired his leadership style. He and his men were stranded on the ice for two years, yet they survived because of his leadership.”

Life with Larry Mullins has at times “been like a ride at Disneyland,” said the one person who knows him best, his wife.

The two began dating in high school and were married shortly after Larry was discharged from the Marine Corps and Barbara completed her nursing degree.

“I was 20 and he was 21,” she said. “He was trying to figure out what he was going to do. We came from working class families and we never could have dreamed our lives would have come this far.”

The couple corresponded through letters during his deployment, but Barbara said the war changed her future husband in many ways.

“When he came home from the war, he didn’t like loud noises, such as a piece of lumber falling onto the floor,” she said. “I was always cautious about how I woke him up when he was sleeping. He developed a deep commitment to veterans, especially their health care needs.”

Larry also became a bit more “suspicious of people, a little more cautious,” Barbara said.

Mullins developed his “visionary” plan for health care services in Arizona, but his bosses couldn’t always see where he was headed, Barbara said.

“The system he worked in didn’t always embrace some of his ideas, even after he built a new hospital, which was unfortunate,” Barbara said. “The system he has helped build in Oregon is much different than what is operating in Arizona.”

Barbara believes the fact that each of the local hospitals has an equal number of members on the corporate board is her husband’s way of making sure everyone has a voice in decision-making.

She also praised the many good managers that have worked with her husband as a team.

“You can be a visionary, but unless you have people surrounding you who can make things happen, it won’t work,” she said. “Larry has surrounded himself with good people and that can make or break a CEO. It truly has been a team effort here.”

Barbara said she is concerned that Larry will take on too many projects in retirement, but she has sensed that he has come to peace with his decision to change careers.

“At first, I think it was hard for him to come to terms with retirement,” she said. “But the last four or five months, he has really accepted it. He has full confidence that Doug (Boysen) will do a good job. A younger person will bring fresh ideas to the job. Big changes will have to be made over time.”

Barbara said she is looking forward to the trip to Antarctica, but her adventure will come in June when the couple travels to Africa. A whitewater trip down the Colorado River with family awaits the couple in July.

“We are going to start retirement with a wild ride,” she said, laughing.

Mullins said he will remain a “cheerleader” for Samaritan and continue to raise funds for the Mullins Fund and Samaritan, focusing on improving child health mental health opportunities in the mid-valley. He especially hopes to see the new alcohol and drug rehab center in Lebanon constructed.

“I’m also a strong believer that economic development is a factor in improving the overall health of our communities,’ Mullins said.

Mullins said he has no regrets about the move away from Samaritan’s leadership role.

“I feel as good as one can stepping away from something you’ve help build and love,” Mullins said. “I’m so thankful for the many opportunities I have had. I appreciate all of the good work people around me have done and will continue to do.”

Contact Linn County reporter Alex Paul at 541-812-6114.