Tasha Blackmon becomes CEO of Cherry Health on April 1, 2018, succeeding long-time chief executive Chris Shea, who retires on March 31. Blackmon will move into the CEO’s position of the largest federally qualified health center in Michigan — with 20 locations in Kent, Barry, Eaton, Montcalm, Muskegon and Wayne counties and some 70,000 patients annually — after serving as chief of operations.
As you prepare to become CEO, how is Cherry Health positioned for the future?
The organization is positioned very well for the future. Under Chris Shea’s leadership, we have provided access to more than 70,000 patients (annually) in this community, we have been innovators in the area of integrated health, we have added services … and in 2011 we merged with ProAction Behavioral Health Alliance as well as Touchstone Innovare. Through that merger, we began to really integrate services for our patients so that they have a seamless experience as they move from one program to the next.
What do the next few years look like for your organizations?
In terms of what the future looks like for Cherry Health, our mission is always going to be to serve the underserved, so that will go unchanged. But in terms of how we provide access to the underserved, we’re going to look at new technologies for making access more convenient for our patient population. We’re also going to focus on quality and look at disparities and how certain disease states affect certain populations. We’re going to look at population health and how we make the total population healthier.
What’s the biggest opportunity for Cherry Health in 2018?
One of our biggest challenges is to share with the community what it is that we do, how it is we serve patients, and really how our clinical outcomes are on par with the other health care organizations in this community. People might be surprised to hear that because I think they might think that health care for the underserved means that the health care is not of the same quality, but we’re really proud of the quality that we provide our patients. That’s an area of focus to continue enhancing into the future.
What would you like to see Cherry Health do that it doesn’t do now?
We’ve talked about using virtual platforms differently, allowing individuals to do virtual visits. We haven’t done that at this point. We’ve talked about partnerships, potentially, with schools like Michigan State University’s medical school, since we’re right here in the same community and we currently host some of their medical students. We’re looking at new partnerships in the community. New collaborative partnerships is something that we’re definitely looking into.
How has the good economy in the Grand Rapids area affected your organization and operations?
Whenever people have stable employment, they can do better with following through on their health care treatment plan. If individuals don’t have a good job, that means they may not have safe housing, that means that they may not have resources, and that means that they may not have all of those things that we call social determinants of health that present barriers to them achieving optimal health. I believe the fact that we’re doing so well from an economic standpoint in Grand Rapids does positively impact our patients.
Does Cherry Health have the same issues attracting and retaining talent as other health care providers?
Yes. We have a very difficult time attracting medical assistants, as well as psychiatrists. Some of our primary care physician positions have become very difficult to recruit, which is why our relationships with the medical school and others is something that we’re really looking to strengthen so that those individuals become a pool to recruit from in the future.
How do you compete for talent with the other care providers in town?
We may not necessarily pay the same salary as some of those other organizations. One way that we recruit is with the National Health Service Corps scholarship that allows individuals to work in an underserved area and then they receive loan forgiveness for some of their medical school loans. Maybe individuals find that (to be) an attractive benefit. Others just fall in love with the patient population. So our goal is to expose medical students, nursing students to community health early on in their careers so that they develop a love for it. We’ve had many people start out as National Health Service Corps and they love the population they serve so much that they just stay. We offer a unique experience for providers.
What’s one prediction you have for 2018?
If the fiscal cliff passes before the end of the year (as in, the federal government is funded), my prediction will be that Cherry Health provides access to care for more patients in 2018 than we ever have in any year during our 30-year history. (Editor’s note: Federal support accounts for a large percentage of Cherry Health’s funding.)