New Natividad CEO has seen good, bad times at county hospital
- September 17, 2015
Natividad Medical Center CEO Dr. Gary Gray stands in front of a mural by Salinas-based artist Jose Ortiz inside the Salinas hospital on Wednesday. (David Royal – Monterey Herald)
By Jim Johnson, Monterey Herald
SALINAS, CA – Sept 17, 2015 – New Natividad Medical Center CEO Dr. Gary Gray admits he could never have envisioned where both he and the county-owned hospital would end up when he arrived in 2001.
Gray came to Natividad from Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C., with impressive academic credentials after serving as assistant professor and director of pre-doctoral education of the school’s family medicine department, but little administrative experience.
What the family doctor found was a venerable public safety net hospital in the throes of financial turmoil just three years after opening a new $116 million, 172-bed facility, changing top administrators with regularity, building distrust between medical staff and administration, a failed funding measure, and serious discussions about selling off or closing the hospital as it sunk into a massive $25 million deficit in a single fiscal year.
A decade and a half later, Natividad is on solid financial footing after a hugely successful consultant-led turnaround effort, reporting a $7 million profit last fiscal year despite significant investment in its new trauma center program that it secured by beating out Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital.
And Gray has been appointed the hospital’s top administrator after a national search and topping a slate of three finalists. He was appointed Sept. 1 by the Board of Supervisors, which this week approved a contract paying him a $418,184.85 annual salary.
While he admitted to taking a “non-traditional career trajectory” for a hospital CEO, Gray said he believes his experience at the county hospital gives him a unique vantage point.
“I’ve seen Natividad in many different lights and I understand the transformation that has occurred over the past decade,” he said. “My fear is someone else would take our current success for granted. That’s why I wanted this job. I think it’s important to have someone with a historical perspective.”
Gray, 52, earned his doctorate in osteopathic medicine from the University of Osteopathic Medicine and Health Sciences in Des Moines, Iowa, before completing his residency and an internship in family medicine at Womack Army Medical Center in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and a short stint in private practice in Denver.
Gray first came to Monterey County when he got married in Pacific Grove in 1988. He returned to work as an Army staff physician at Fort Ord and the Presidio of Monterey in the early 1990s, and says he never forgot the area’s charm.
When a position became available at Natividad, Gray said he jumped at the chance. In addition to returning to the area, he said the safety net hospital’s mission held a particular appeal.
“I really believe in primary care and I really believe in access, and that’s what we’re all about,” Gray said.
During his time at Natividad, Gray has served in a number of administrative roles, including director of the family medicine residency program, chief of staff and chief medical officer, as well as interim CEO since February. Gray took over as interim CEO from Dr. Kelly O’Keefe, a member of the hospital board who stepped in for former CEO Harry Weis who left abruptly last summer.
Supervisor Dave Potter, who has served on the Natividad board for nearly a decade, said Gray’s professional expertise and an extensive knowledge of the hospital’s operations, along with his rapport with physicians and medical staff, his knowledge of the community, and his work on the trauma center and dealing with changes under the Affordable Care Act made him the choice to lead the hospital.
Gray praised Weis as a “great man” for his leadership at the hospital from the time he arrived with the Huron Consulting Group to his work as CEO in solidifying the progress made during the turnaround. Gray said he learned a lot from Weis.
At the same time, while Weis chafed under county oversight, regularly arguing and maneuvering for more autonomy, Gray described himself as “pretty comfortable” with the hospital’s place as part of a larger organization.
Under Weis, Natividad began an ambitious capital improvement program that included renovation of an unused section of the hospital as a family medicine clinic operated by the county health department and plans for a remodel of the acute care unit. The hospital has also built its medical staff and service lines in a way that Gray said has helped it strike a balance between treating all patients regardless of the ability to pay and a healthy bottom line.
Gray said he believes Natividad is uniquely poised to meet the demands and challenges of national health reform as a result of its business practices and focus on “population health” and hospital-supported physician base.
“There’s always a dynamic balance of the business side and meeting the health care mission of the institution — that’s the secret sauce — and very few safety net hospitals have achieved that balance,” Gray said. “I’m very thankful for that because it allows us to meet our mission.
“That’s our legacy, not what happened 14-15 years ago. In time, I hope those days fade into the past and out of memory, and we think of Natividad’s success as the norm.”
Gray said he has no plans to join the previous parade of CEOs to stop by Natividad in those bad old days, and hopes to leadlo the hospital until he retires.
“I have no intention of going anywhere. Personally and professionally, this is where I want to be.”