Newcomb’s sole practitioner ending 31-year run
By James M. Odato
Ten years ago, Jim Johns of Long Lake was a 54-year old trucker with a bad back, terrible fatigue and a troublesome prostate. Physician assistant Kevin Bolan discovered Johns’ bladder was pushing poison into his blood.
Bolan told him to contact a Glens Falls specialist and alerted that doctor that Johns’ was an urgent case.
“The specialist called me the next day and told me to meet at the hospital and I had an operation right there,” Johns said. “Another day or two, and I would have been gone. Kevin saved my life.”
Johns, now retired, is one of dozens of Bolan’s patients saddened to hear he is retiring after three decades of house calls, weekend visits and office examinations at the tiny Newcomb Health Center. Bolan serves as a physician assistant to Dr. Russell Rider in Long Lake and covers some of Rider’s patients as well.
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He says he works eight days a week. He told Rider and elected leaders of Newcomb, which pays the expenses of his health center and his $65,000 annual salary, he’s had enough of being on call 24 hours a day.
“It’s time for someone younger to come in,” Bolan, 60, said in between a run of patients. He’s agreed to stay on to help interview candidates “and make sure they’re a good fit and that someone else comes in for the next 30 years.”
He announced his plan to retire — he also used the word resign — at a Newcomb board meeting in January, stunning the elected officials and townspeople alike. A group of patients responded with a “petition to retain Kevin Bolan, PAC.” It drew 101 signatures, including that of the wife of Town Supervisor Robin Deloria. The drive ended because Bolan made it clear his decision was final.
Some thought the board could do something and wondered if it deserved some blame for Bolan leaving. Bolan listed weaker board support over the past four years, family losses, increased demands during the pandemic and heavier out-of-pocket expenses as reasons for his decision.
Those extra costs involved covering overtime for staff and managing electronic records, roughly $30,000 a year split between Rider and Bolan, Bolan said. After he read his resignation letter in January to the town board, Deloria agreed to have the town resume picking up those bills.
“I do not accept this resignation,” Deloria said at the January meeting, according to a transcript. “I want to see what we can do to make amends.”
In an interview, he said he met with Bolan and respects his decision. He said he considers the PA his friend and said the town has done much to support the health care operation.
He said he likes the arrangement of collaborating with Long Lake’s doctor and plans to continue that relationship with Rider.
He said Bolan agreed to stay on for the rest of the year to help search for his replacement. Newcomb is advertising for a nurse practitioner, physician assistant or doctor.
“We need someone like Kevin, who’s willing to go to somebody’s house on Sunday morning or Friday night,” Deloria said. “We don’t need an agency that says we’re open Monday through Friday. We want to replace what we have.”
Like many of the town of 412 residents, Deloria, 64, has plenty of examples of Bolan performing well beyond his contract duties.
From helping Deloria and his wife when their baby kept them awake in 1996 — coming up with a creative mix of food and formula to quell his hunger — to delivering COVID-19 medication when Deloria became infected in January, Bolan’s service won’t be forgotten, Deloria said. “I would have had to get in my truck and drive my sick body to Glens Falls,” he said.
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Rider, 61, who has been Long Lake’s doctor since 1989, has become close to Bolan and their practices and styles are similar. “You’re really not just a service,’’ Rider said. “You’re part of the fabric of the community. I consider the vast majority of my patients not just as patients, but friends. They’re losing not just this person in health care, they’re also losing a part of community.”
Some wonder if anyone can be found to fill the role. Few listen as well and care as much, said Michelle Hamdan, the nurse at Long Lake’s medical center, where Bolan works two half-days a week. The model that has served the rural area for decades — town support and extra income for the doctor from his patient care — may be a tough sell.
“This was a great opportunity 30 years ago in terms of there being help building a practice,” she said. “I wonder in the environment we’re in now, is that a pull? Everybody is joining conglomerates now.”
Bolan has trained students to become physicians during his career and he was named PA of the year in 2017 by the New York State Society of Physician Assistants. He’s also a past president.
He trained in Harlem, worked in an emergency room and practiced on Long Island before arriving in Newcomb in 1990, taking a $70,000 pay cut, he said. “I really kind of thought this would be the ideal job where we could be part of a community.”
When not running, hiking, biking or doing something outdoors, he’s usually with patients. His wife, Denise, who retired as the PA for the Newcomb school system, sometimes assists him. They live in a house provided by the town attached to the health center.
Bolan said the town has been generous in covering most of his expenses and that not worrying about the overhead allows him to concentrate on patients.
His plan is to reduce his load to one day a week and back up whoever becomes the full-timer. He owns a place on nearby Lake Harris and a residence in Saratoga County.
“He’s caring, he’s dependable, he’s dedicated,” Johns said. “He’s everything you want — a doctor, really.”
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I seriously doubt Newcomb will be able to attract another PA at that salary – let alone an MD or DO. COVID has pushed many health care workers into early retirement, so demand is high. Newcomb should at least consider providing free housing at that salary level. You only buy a house once.
Ruth Olbert says
They do provide free housing in addition to the salary.
Whoops – I missed that. Makes a big difference – especially in an area that doesn’t have many housing options.
Perhaps there are multiple options available. Given that the last sentence said he would still be willing to work 1 day and backup the full timer, perhaps they could negotiate to see if he would be OK with doing 2 days on call (that is, no or few regular appointments, just being available if someone needed help).
If that was feasible, they could then be more likely to find someone who is OK with a more normal 5 days/week schedule.
Another alternative might be to recruit a couple other people from those who have also “retired”. You might find several who would be willing to work a couple days per week and being retired (with whatever money they have from their time working) would be less dependent on the additional income.
I know of a situation locally with a dentist that did just that (went back to working 2 days per week) as he missed seeing patients, and he had moved to this area from downstate NY so he can work those couple days and be available for family in the area the rest of the time.