There are a few things you notice almost immediately when meeting the new CEO of Denver Health. The first is that he is running on overdrive keeping a schedule that is timed out to the minute. It is the kind of micro-managed schedule that can, from time to time, cause him to run a bit behind.
Another thing you notice when meeting him is that he comes across as the kind of person who does not let a little tardiness stand between him and the chance to make a good and thoughtful first impression. His warm smile and kind explanation for any delays are sincere.
But Dr. Arthur Gonzalez, no doubt, will be running behind for awhile as he settles into the job of overseeing one of the finest public health care facilities in the nation; a place many people still refer to as DGH.
Gonzalez, a native Texan, knows his way around the health care field. He has criss-crossed the country working at both public and private medical facilities for nearly four decades. Most recently, he was CEO of Hennepin Healthcare Systems in Minneapolis, a facility very similar to Denver Health.
In accepting the position, Gonzalez understood that he would be following a superstar in Dr. Patricia Gabow. Gabow, a kidney-disease specialist, ran the hospital from 1997 until her recent retirement and played an indispensible role as it transitioned from a city-run facility to a quasi-governmental authority.
Gabow’s leadership elevated the 477 bed hospital that annually treats 40 percent of Denver’s population into a national model for public hospitals. Her policies placed the facility, which operates on an annual budget of nearly half a billion dollars, on sound financial footing while enhancing patient care.
When he got the call about the Denver Health vacancy, Gonzalez says he jumped at the chance. “I had an immediate interest,” he says. He had visited the facility a few years earlier when he and a team of executives and physicians came here to study its operating structure.
While neither of his parents went to college, there was no question that he, along with his three sisters, would be going. His father, a career civil servant at San Antonio’s Kelley Air Force Base, and his mother “placed a high value on education.”
Each of the Gonzalez children earned college degrees. “My Dad is very proud of the fact that he had the first college graduate in his family,” says the new CEO. That honor, however, did not belong to Gonzalez, but his sister. But he became the first among the siblings — or extended family — to earn a doctorate.
Gonzalez says he fell into health care by accident. “I never even knew there was such a thing,” he says. He actually learned about health care administration at a high school career day. His accidental introduction to health care that day — and the opportunities it presented — was all it took.
“I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” he recalls telling his parents when he got home. “They thought I was nuts because they had never heard of it either.” But Gonzalez had found his calling. Or it had found him.
He got his first job running a hospital at the age of 27 in East Channelview, Texas. “My task there was to build a brand new hospital,” he says. Pretty simple. He stayed on as it grew into region’s primary health care facility.
From there, Gonzalez has served as a hospital executive in Tucson, Ariz., Fort Worth, Texas, Shreveport, La., Oceanside, Calif. and Minneapolis, Minn. But the chance to return to the west, he says, and a facility with the renown of Denver Health was simply an opportunity he couldn’t refuse.
“They’ve got a great staff at all levels,” he says. He also relishes the opportunity to help “serve the underserved.” More than 40 percent of Denver Health’s annual 170,000 patents visits are made by the uninsured.
These are exciting and challenging times for hospitals and new hospital CEOs. Gonzalez is still not sure how the Affordable Care Act — Obamacare — will impact the way Denver Health runs. It’s possible that current models in healthcare will undergo a dramatic evolution.
But as Gonzalez settles into his new role of CEO, he faces another interesting challenge of connecting with Denver’s Latino community, the client group that uses the hospital more than any other. Also, the Baker neighborhood, where Denver Health is situated, is one of the city’s oldest Latino communities.
He also knows of the controversy that preceded his appointment when a group of Latino community and business leaders pointed out that not a single Latino had been included in the search for a new Denver Health CEO. Denver banking executive Eric Duran was subsequently appointed to the search committee.
“Our primary mission is taking care of people,” Gonzalez said shortly after his arrival. But making certain that Denver Health’s largest constituency feels a part of the mission is also important.
“We’re going to reach out to the leaders, we’re going to reach out to those patients, we’re going to reach out to those communities,” he says. The Latino community, he promises, will know that it is valued.
“More and more, health care everywhere is starting to deal with ‘how do we deal with diversity, how do we deal with the translation capability, how do we deal with the economics,” Gonzalez says. But he is quick to point out that all communities — Latino or otherwise— will be fully respected.
While Gonzalez and his wife of 33 years, Debbie, had found a comfortable niche in Minneapolis, he says living in Denver will provide more opportunity for visits with his three children and grandchildren. Two of Gonzalez children live in Texas, another in Southern California.
After he and his wife get settled, they plan to take advantage of the city’s cultural amenities. Both enjoy live theatre and Broadway productions. Gonzalez is also an avid musician. He plays rhythm guitar, percussion and, from time to time, even does the vocals. Over the course of his career, he has also found time to perform with a number of bands comprised of hospital staff.
Gonzalez’ first day on the job was Sept. 5.