Lil Anderson, president and CEO of RiverStone Health and RiverStone Health Clinic since 1992, announced Tuesday that she will retire June 30, three years to the day after the county's public health agency officially took on its new name.

John Felton, executive vice president-operations and deputy health officer at RiverStone Health, will become president and CEO effective July 1.

Yellowstone County Commissioner Bill Kennedy, who serves on the county's Board of Health, said a succession plan has been in the works, knowing Anderson would be retiring.

"But we were surprised it was so soon," Kennedy said, referring to Anderson as the "face of public health in this community."

Anderson's biggest contribution has been putting public health on the map so residents have access to health care in the county.

"Public health has been her niche in life," Kennedy said. "She eats, breathes and sleeps public health in this community."

In the past few years, RiverStone has added a $10 million office building on First Avenue South and South 26th Street. The cost includes remodeling the neighboring RiverStone medical facility along South 27th Street, allowing the agency to consolidate medical services now offered at three locations. RiverStone is also adding a $2.5 million in-patient hospice home on the St. John's Lutheran Home campus, 3940 Rimrock Road.

Anderson also has been active in forging a partnership among RiverStone Health, Billings Clinic and St. Vincent Healthcare. The three organizations cooperate on issues such as disaster preparedness and medication assistance. The Medication Assistance Program at RiverStone Health helps patients who either don't have insurance or are underinsured get prescription medications from drug companies for free or at reduced cost.

She also worked closely with the two hospitals to develop a program in which people visiting emergency rooms in need of mental health care, social services or primary care, are referred to the proper agencies.

Anderson also has helped lead efforts to assess the community's health needs.

"I don't think you find many communities around the country where the clinic and hospital organizations are partnering so closely with the public health sector to improve the overall health of the community," said Dr. Nicholas Wolter, CEO of Billings Clinic.

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Anderson will remain employed at RiverStone until the end of September to facilitate the transition. Anderson serves as the immediate past-chair of the Board of the National Association of Community Health Centers and has been active in federal affairs for many years.

Neither Anderson, 63, nor Felton, 52, was available for comment Tuesday.

In a letter to board members and staff, Anderson said there were many "thoughts, feelings and reasons" that went into her decision. Health reform will occur no matter what happens at the federal, state or local levels as the market is already driving changes, she wrote. The changes will occur over a five-year period and organizations such RiverStone will need a second five years to fully adjust and stabilize.

"My love for and commitment to this organization remains high, but due to family health concerns, I do not have the ability to remain at the helm for the next five to 10 years," Anderson said. "My belief is that consistent leadership is essential for RiverStone Health to adapt to future reforms."

She began her career in 1976 as a public health nurse at what was then called the Yellowstone City-County Health Department and held numerous leadership positions before taking the helm.

During Anderson's tenure the department changed its name to RiverStone Health to raise public awareness of the agency's services and bring them under a single identity. At the time, Anderson said the name change was "necessary" because the organization was not well known in the community.

Wolter described Anderson as progressive, hardworking, visionary, tough, smart, uniquely talented and collaborative.

"She's a very innovative leader who has brought a number of things into our community that serve people, particularly people of lesser means, in terms of their access to health care," Wolter said, adding that she was instrumental in developing sliding-fee programs in the areas of primary care, mental health, and dental health. "This has been a wonderful thing for the community."

Dr. Doug Carr, chairman of the board of RiverStone Health, credited Anderson for transforming the organization from a county department to a community health center that includes not only health and hospice services but also an educational component that Carr called a "futuristic model nationally."

RiverStone Health is home to the Montana Family Medicine Residency program, which prepares medical school graduates to practice in rural and underserved areas of Montana.

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Contact Cindy Uken at cuken@billingsgazette.com or 657-1287.