Southern Humboldt Hospital District Developing New Strategic Plan

Southern Humboldt Community Healthcare District CEO Matt Rees, left, meets with Rob Eskridge and Ryan Stock of Growth Management Center, the consultants helping to update the district’s strategic plan.  (Photo by Kent Scown)  

Southern Humboldt Community Healthcare District CEO Matt Rees, left, meets with Rob Eskridge and Ryan Stock of Growth Management Center, the consultants helping to update the district’s strategic plan.  (Photo by Kent Scown)

In a unanimous vote at its regular monthly meeting last Thursday, the governing board of the Southern Humboldt Community Healthcare District hired a Santa Cruz Mountains consulting firm to provide guidance as the district embarks on an update of its strategic plan.

The decision to enter into a $33,000, six-month contract with Growth Management Center, as the firm of planning facilitators is called, came just a week after the naming of Matt Rees as the district’s new chief executive officer.

The 47-year-old Rees, brought on board last fall as the district’s chief financial officer, is behind the current focus on the strategic plan, a policy planning document that describes the district’s mission, values and goals.

During the meeting Rees emphasized “the need for a well-outlined strategic plan.” Board Chair Barbara Truitt agreed. “We need to get traction quickly” on updating it, she said.

Speaking the day after last week’s meeting, Rees said he also stressed the importance of a focused, mutually agreed-upon strategic plan in his job interview with the board.

“I told them we need to set our priorities so all of us would be on the same page moving forward,” Rees related. “I don’t want to work on things the board doesn’t want me to. And I don’t want board members pulling one way and me another.”

Once it became clear that Rees was going to be the new chief, he reached out to Growth Management Center, an outfit he worked with when he was CEO at Mayers Memorial Hospital in Fall River Mills, Calif., from 2010 to 2015.

“The first thing I did at Mayers [Memorial] was hire Growth Management Center [to do a strategic plan presentation],” Rees explained.

In a case of the past repeating itself, Growth Management Center last week once again made a presentation before a hospital board where Rees was the new CEO. It was conducted in person by the firm’s owner, Rob Eskridge, and a staffer, Ryan Stock.

By way of preparation, the pair had communicated ahead of time with each of the board members as well as to Rees and Kent Scown, the hospital district’s director of operations. As a result, they knew going in what the pertinent issues facing the district were.

Half tutorial and half brainstorming session, the presentation was carried out with the aid of a number of yellow stickies arrayed on a wall. Each of the small notepapers had written on them a different goal or objective — such as Build a New Hospital, Rebuild Inpatient Revenue and Recruit Visiting Specialists. They were grouped under one of three categories: Short-Term Decisions; Critical, Not Urgent; and Information/Policy Dependent.

Some notes stayed under the categories in which they had originally been placed. Others, at the suggestion of one of the board members or of Rees, were moved into new categories.

The purpose of the exercise wasn’t to make any definite decisions about priorities. Instead, it was simply to give board members, who at that point hadn’t yet voted on whether to hire Growth Management Center, a taste for what it would be like to work with the firm.

Eskridge explained that if hired, people from his company would come to the district on three occasions over the next six months to provide hands-on assistance with the prioritization effort. In between these site visits he and his staff would be accessible remotely. “We’re very good at tele-planning,” he said.

He pointed to the need for an organized approach as well as the need for deadlines. A determination of which issues should be considered Short-Term Decisions would be made in March and April. Those deemed Critical, Not Urgent would be looked at in May and June. And matters in the Information/Policy Dependent category would come under consideration in July and August.

“We’ll visit all these issues within the next six months. It feels overwhelming but we’ve tackled this before many times. One step at a time really works,” Eskridge assured the board.

By the end of the six-month time period, “it will be clear where you’re going as a district over the long term,” he added.

After Board Member Corrine Stromstad expressed concern about the possibility of going in a direction on something for six months and then realizing that it’s not feasible, Eskridge suggested a way to avoid such an outcome.

“When there are elements of the [strategic] plan that the board agrees on, vote to approve it so it gets locked in. Adopt the plans everyone agrees on,” he advised.

In addition to assisting with the strategic planning effort, Rees said Growth Management Center would play a secondary “consulting” role under the same $33,000 contract on another matter: building public support for a renewal of the $125-per-year per-parcel tax that provides a critical source of income for the district.

The parcel tax is due to be automatically rescinded after the 2017-2018 fiscal year. To build voter support for renewing it, Eskridge suggested that the district first do a “community assessment.”

“Do a survey to get input so the community knows you’re rethinking health care delivery,” he said.

Then, he went on, provide hard evidence that things are indeed changing — such as an announcement that the district has acquired an important piece of medical equipment, like a CT Scanner. (One of the goals listed on one of the pieces of yellow notepaper was, in fact, to acquire such a device.)

Eskridge recommended “a drumbeat of announcements,” on the order of one a month, in the time leading up to a parcel tax renewal vote.

The announcements would inform the community of new initiatives — such as a call-in service that would let people know where they can go to receive different types of health care services; or a voucher program — this is something Rees is actually proposing — that would cover “co-pays and anything else left over after insurance pays,” as Rees has described it.

What matters with these new initiatives, Eskridge told the board, is that they “teach the community how to get health care in rural areas” in ways they haven’t before. He said it would also be important to address the needs of all segments of the community.

“When people feel ignored, those are the naysayers,” he warned.

Regarding Rees’s voucher proposal, while it was discussed the board took no action on it. Instead, it was decided to run the idea — in which property owners and perhaps renters in the district would receive $125 vouchers on a yearly basis — by an attorney.

“It seems like a great idea. But we need to make sure it’s legal,” Truitt remarked.