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EDITORIAL: Through it all, Ness has been more

| March 3, 2024 1:00 AM

When the long, lean, sheepishly grinning Jon Ness arrived in North Idaho in 2010, he already had his game shoes on.

He didn’t come here from Montana to wait patiently on the bench and see how the health care game was played. A college basketball enthusiast with few peers in these parts — and that’s saying a lot with Gonzaga’s ascension to national power mirroring Ness’s tenure — Jon took Kootenai Medical Center’s playbook and, with the utmost respect, locked it away in the trophy case.

KMC had long been the county’s outstanding community hospital. Its leaders were comfortable providing many essential services and referring many others across the state line. But the population here was surging and the national health care landscape was changing fast. Community hospitals would be gobbled up by corporations with little or no skin in the local game.

Looking back now, what Ness saw and the strategy he employed to meet health care’s future demands was nothing short of astonishing. He checked into the game, controlled the tipoff and raced downcourt for a slam dunk. And he’s been dunking ever since.

In 2013, Kootenai Medical Center became Kootenai Health, a move that had some folks scratching their heads and a few others crying foul. But the branding change accurately reflected the path Ness had charted: metamorphosis from a hospital building to a world-class regional health care provider.

The Jon Ness era is replete with construction projects, vast expansion of specialties and key services and, not to be undervalued, a massive economic infusion.

When the Ness family arrived here, Kootenai County’s population was 138,494. Today it’s estimated at 190,442 — growth of just over one third.

In 2010 Kootenai Medical Center employed about 1,800 people. Today, by far the region’s largest employer issues paychecks to 4,021 people. That’s well more than double the growth.

Yet the most impressive trophy on Ness’s figurative shelf would be the one he might have earned for helping keep our life-saving medical services running against the headwinds of the pandemic. 

At a time when leadership at every level was under unparalleled duress — Ness could watch protesters from his office window even as exhausted employees lined up to turn in their notices — he came through, a towering, stable figure on a court otherwise diminished by fear and panic.

This editorial was written by a guy who watched some of those same protesters while receiving chemo infusions for stage 4 cancer across the street from the main KH campus. During the COVID crisis, Kootenai Health lost 1,000 employees. But for the many hundreds of patients who got sick at the worst possible time, Team Ness came through with victory after victory.

After Jon cleans out his locker this Friday, just short of 14 years as CEO, he and wife Pam will put their traveling shoes on for NCAA conference and then national basketball tournament games. That sheepish grin will grow.

When it comes to well-earned retirements, Jon Ness stands a little taller than most.

Congratulations and thanks for everything, Jon. Long may you dunk.