UPON REFLECTION: Retired HHS leaders take a look back
With the benefit of rest and hindsight, the two leaders who guided Lincoln County Health and Human Services through some remarkable highs and lows reflected recently on COVID-19, community health, and retirement. In April, Rebecca Austen retired as the county health department director, followed in June by Rebecca McBee-Wilson, who had served as the health center director. Affectionately known as the “two Rebeccas,” the women had worked as co-leaders of the county’s largest department since restructuring in 2018. “The two of them came to commissioners with a new plan of co-directors and their creative vision proved to be effective at a time when the HHS department was experiencing budget shortfalls, staff turnover and turmoil. Their leadership proved to be strong and effective at a time when it was needed,” said Lincoln County Chair Doug Hunt. “Their service is deeply appreciated and recognized,” he added.
Prior to the restructuring, McBee-Wilson came to the county in 2010 as the Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) director, first overseeing primary care services and then later adding behavioral health. Austen joined the county in 2013 as the public health division director. Both brought specialized skills and experiences in healthcare. McBee-Wilson had previously worked as a healthcare administrator in the Portland metro area. Austen had worked as a public health nurse before becoming a nurse consultant for the State of Oregon. “The two Rebeccas brought stability and vision to our Health and Human Services department after a time of turmoil,” said Commissioner Claire Hall. That departmental turmoil would be eclipsed a few years later, when a pandemic permeated the globe and Lincoln County was no exception. While today county health officials continue to provide health services, education, and vaccinations for COVID-19, the two women can now reflect on the challenging early days of the pandemic.
As health department director, virus response was priority one for Austen and her staff. Just a few years prior, the department had worked to obtain accreditation by the national Public Health Accreditation Board. “Getting accredited was probably the most exciting and rewarding accomplishment and it will continue to be important for the health department,” she explained, adding that it was “a heavy lift” but the process proved invaluable during COVID-19. “Getting accredited is what made us so functional and able to deal with one of the largest outbreaks in the state in a fairly quick manner,” Austen recalled. “We had built this quality improvement setting where you don’t blame people, but you are always asking customers how we can improve. When the pandemic hit, we had an environment where everyone helped each other because we had developed this culture of cooperation.”
Commissioners took note of that culture of support within HHS.
“COVID was hard. I don’t think there is any public official in the world that would say differently,” said Commissioner Kaety Jacobson. “What made it easier was Rebecca Austen. Her knowledge, her care for her community, her ability to lead in hard times, and her ability to advocate for our most vulnerable populations.” While Austen and her staff were responding to the ever-evolving fight against COVID-19, McBee-Wilson and her team were continuing to care for the health of the community. “We continued providing both physical health and mental health services throughout the pandemic” she pointed out. “Much of that care was delivered in-person. We had never provided virtual visits before, and we had to transform that overnight.”
McBee-Wilson said being nimble was key and credits the staff as “really dedicated, passionate, and smart folks who could figure anything out. They identified what was needed and developed a solution for it. They were and are amazing.” It’s that spirit that Jacobson said was key to a smooth health center operation.
“Rebecca McBee-Wilson has a been a joy to work with, always willing to help problem solve, to allow a new commissioner to bounce things off of her and always, always positive,” the commission remarked.
Although she describes the transformation of healthcare in her later career as an “invigorating” time, McBee-Wilson is now looking forward to the stimulation of travel to far-off places in retirement. As for Austen, she describes herself as a “good putzer” and looks forward to reading, gardening, and getting to know her neighbors.