Price EMHA Graduate Pursues Career Path as a Catalyst in Health Care Relations

December 20, 2018

By Matthew Kredell

Growing up as a boy in the broiling summers of Wichita, Kansas, Tony Hernandez remembers walking through Via Christi Hospital St. Francis just to get out of the heat. While receiving snacks from the nurses and nuns, he was struck by seeing the vulnerable people who needed help.

“I always thought it would be awesome to have the opportunity to help people get better,” Hernandez said.

In August, Hernandez, a 2016 graduate of the Executive Master of Health Administration program at the USC Price School of Public Policy, began a new position that will give him the opportunity to have an impact on a greater number of people. He is now plan president and CEO for Western Sky Community Care, a managed care organization that provides health insurance to New Mexico residents.

Early on in his career, Hernandez thought his skills would be best suited to a laboratory as a medical lab technician. The job was rewarding, but it lacked in human interaction. He switched to business development for an acute rehab hospital in Wichita, where he found his calling.

“Through treatments, I saw many times folks would come in broken and leave put back together in a way they were able to walk out, and that was fulfilling in so many ways,” Hernandez said. “That’s what got me more into direct patient care interaction and seeing the difference that we can make.”

In 2004, Hernandez moved into New Mexico to become CEO of Ernest Health, a company he helped start to provide post-acute care services to smaller, underserved communities. Over the next decade, he helped build the company to 25 acute freestanding hospitals and long-term care acute hospitals in 11 states.

With the passage of the Affordable Care Act, Hernandez felt that the existing model for health care in the United States wasn’t sustainable, that he needed an outside perspective and that he lacked comprehensive understanding of value-based health care solutions. He researched options for educational programs and found that providing cost-effective care in an era of value-based purchasing was one of the five curricular themes of the EMHA program at USC Price.

“The cohorts, the level of engagement with professors, the projects I was able to do and the skills I was able to refine all kind of crystalized my thoughts around how I can help contribute to solving a very complex problem for which we’re all looking for new solutions and ideas,” Hernandez said. “That is bringing down costs of health care to make it more sustainable.”

At the end of the first of his two years in the program, Hernandez recalls coming to USC for a week-long residency. Prof. Michael Harris broke the cohort into groups and provided a case study problem that they worked on for the next four days, with each group assigned a region in California and tasked with assessing how it could assure access to service in a way that was cost-effective and added value.

In the middle of the third day, Harris threw them a curve ball by removing the person who had been proclaimed the CEO of each team, switching up the groups’ leadership to replicate the upheaval that can occur at companies in the real world.

Everyone was upset with the professor, and many of the teams couldn’t recover. But Hernandez remembers it as his most valuable experience in the program.

“It was an exercise in leadership, keeping to the true mission, how to move forward in an organization despite all the barriers that raise up around you,” Harris said. “Generally, what I found to happen was that one team would get over it and move forward to solve the case study problem. Tony was on one of those teams that accepted the challenge.”

Harris wasn’t surprised that Hernandez was able to focus his new team on the task at hand.

“Tony, when he walks in the room and starts talking about health care, you can tell that he is going to gather whatever information you’re giving to him and make a difference at his institution,” Harris said.

Hernandez’ goal at Western Sky is to make it the plan of choice in the state of New Mexico with brand recognition for offering the community high quality, cost-effective services.

At Ernest, Hernandez was providing health care. At Western Sky, he moves into the payer side of the equation.

“I think it creates a real unique opportunity for me to help be a catalyst in provider-payer relations,” Hernandez said. “By collaborating, we can aim toward common goals and objectives that improve the health and wellness of our community.”

Related faculty

  • Michael E. Harris

    Professor of the Practice of Health Services Administration and Policy