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August 16, 2010 // UPDATED 8:33 am - August 16, 2010
By: Cristof Traudes
Cristof Traudes
Faces of HCMC // Q&A with Art Gonzalez // Part 1 of 2


Q&A // Part 1 of 2

// Art Gonzalez talks about juggling the duties and  reputation of the state’s largest safety net hospital //

Art Gonzalez is exactly the kind of man you’d expect to see sitting in the corner office and on the throne of the state’s largest safety net hospital.

He talks at great speed and thinks at great speed. He has a wipe board covered in the smudges and faded letters of frequent use, surrounded by diagrams and words such as “cross-subsidizing,” “self-sustaining” and “General Assistance Medical Care.”

He’s only been here since July 2009, but he speaks as if he’s spent a lifetime tuned into the needs of a 123-year-old, nationally recognized enterprise.

In the first of a two-part interview, Gonzalez touches on his daily duties, why Hennepin County Medical Center has split reputations and how he ended up in health care administration.

Downtown Journal: What’s a day like in the 
life of HCMC’s CEO?

Gonzalez: Well, I tend to many components. Primarily it relates to oversight of operations.

One part is the mission of caring for the poor and underserved populations, although that’s not all we do. We treat people of all classes and also of all around the state. But within that mission, we have to be making sure that we’re compliant with state regulations, federal regulations and different accrediting bodies. …

The second thing that we do is to make sure that there’s good oversight and proper coordination of medical education. We train quite a number of post-graduate physicians, and we also have medical students from the University of Minnesota. We provide them certification training.

Within operations, there’s also obviously the attention to things like patient satisfaction, staff engagement and satisfaction, working with medical staff in finding the things that they need — sometimes things need attention of improvement. And we’re also providing oversight of construction both inside the hospital as we renovate, as well as construction out in the community. …

Another thing that we do is, although I’m not as directly involved in it other than in a support way, is research. A lot of physicians are engaged in different clinical trials on treatment protocols, on research of new care models — for example, treatment of AIDS patients, treatment of people with chronic and persistent mental health issues. …

Of late, we’ve established a new foundation, a philanthropic foundation, called Hennepin Health Foundation. It just got started in October but has already conducted an initial internal campaign where they’ve raised several hundred dollars. …

When we’re not working internally in the organization, we’re also working in the area of advocacy. So I spend a fair amount of my time in St. Paul talking with senators and representatives and representatives from the governor’s office. …

There’s also a lot of things that I do that relate to the county because we’re closely tied to them. We keep them apprised of what we’re doing, and it’s important for us to know what the county is doing that could affect us.

We’re going to be embarking on a few new things soon, too. We’re looking at areas of growth that the hospital may be able to do, maybe in new clinical services that we want to be able to offer or expanding sites. For example, we just opened a Wal-Mart clinic. That’s an opportunity that we’re exploring, seeing how that goes. And we just recently received a grant from the state where we’re going to be replacing our 46-year-old hyperbaric oxygen center. …

So, my job — it’s quite a variety.

What don’t you do?


Health care is constantly changing. I’ve been in it for 37 years, and it’s never slowed down. Technology drives a lot of that and economics drives a lot of that, as well as new ways of caring for people.

There are things now that we didn’t have 37 years ago, like electronic health records. But the fundamental act of caring for people and their families, supporting not just clinically but also emotionally and in a complete way — I think it’s important.

The only way, at least in my assessment, that you can improve health care is by being in it. On the outside, you can read about it. You can also try to write laws about it. You can complain about it. But you really can’t improve it unless you’re in it. And so I want to make the system better for the people that we serve, I want to make the system better for me and my family, and I want to make the system better for my grandkids.

How did you end up in hospital administration?

I went to a health care career fair when I was 17 years old. I was a senior.

They took us off site with a bunch of other high school students who were interested in health careers, and they showed us a video of different things in health care. Then they asked us which of us wanted to be physicians — those were sent to room A — which of us wanted to be a nurse — go to room B — and which of us wanted to be in health care administration. When I heard those words, “health care administration,” I thought, “Well, I’ve never heard of that before.” So I went to that room just to see what it’s all about.

They had a military health care administrator, a public health administrator and a private health administrator. We just talked a little about what the work was like, and then they gave us a tour of a large hospital. We went through the boilers and the hospital rooms, and the last stop was the administrator room. And they had a young administrator type who I guess was maybe 25, maybe 26, sitting behind a small little office desk. He had just finished his residency.

I just had this click in my head that said, “That’s what I want to do.”

You’ve worked in a lot of places. How does HCMC compare?

It’s interesting. The jobs that I’ve had before were in both the private and public sectors. In the private sector, they were for-profit and nonprofit. I’ve had hospitals as small as 88 beds and some as large as 650 beds with multiples sites and rural affiliates and that sort of thing. So I thought I was well-prepared. …

HCMC has gone from being a pure public facility — a department of the county — to being a facility that’s still controlled by the county but operates in a more nonprofit free-standing environment. So I’m able now to blend those two things: my private background and my public background. I think that’s been helpful.

One of the things that attracted me here was the medical staff. … Some of the places I’ve been were where doctors are scattered throughout the community and you had to try and get them to coalesce and try to work together. And the problem was that usually they weren’t ever in one place, so they really didn’t have the time or the interest to sit in one place and work on something. Here, these ladies and gentlemen are dedicated to this mission and to this place.

It seems that within the Twin Cities, there’s a stigma that HCMC only serves less privileged populations.

That’s one of the things that we’re going to work on. That’s kind of typical of a safety net hospital.

It’s a definite paradox, you know, that if that’s where the poor people go, then that must mean that that’s not good care or somehow not the best care. Sometimes, it’s actually quite the opposite. You can give great care to people who can pay and you can give great care to people who can’t, and you can give bad care to people who can pay and people who can’t. Whether you can pay or not is not really the issue. It’s whether you give great care. And these people do.

I think when people in the Twin Cities learn that the easiest is when they come to us for trauma care, which is unfortunate — that if someone’s in a severe accident, they bring that person here by virtue of what we do. Then they realize, “Oh wow, that’s not at all what I thought it was like.”

So part of our job will be to take all of this data, all of this information, and turn it into digestible stories that people can understand and relate to. So they realize they don’t only have a great safety net hospital, they have a great hospital here.

Coming in part 2
Gonzalez talks about the changing health care landscape, General Assistance Medical Care and where HCMC is headed.