Henry Salas has been called a visionary, a pioneer and an inspiration to many.
He is all three—and then some.
For the past 11 years, Salas has served as the Chief Executive Officer of the Community Health Centers of South Central Texas (CHCSCT). He is scheduled to retire tomorrow, but he has brought sweeping change, reform and success to the organization during his tenure.
When he arrived on the job on Nov. 19, 2007, CHCSCT was on the verge of being shut down by the federal government. In fact, shortly after arriving in Gonzales and assuming the mantle of CEO, Salas was told by a federal employee that he was sent to Gonzales to eliminate Salas from his position and shut down all services due to mismanagement and lack of organization.
But Salas was not about to throw in the towel. He not only rescued CHCSCT, he instituted changes, created partnerships around the region, and grew the available essential services that has made CHCSCT a model for communities to follow when implementing essential medical, dental and mental health care.
“I have been truly blessed to work with great people and individuals who care about the people and communities they serve,” Salas said earlier this week. “I came here after serving four years as the Chief Operating Officer at the Atascosa Pleasanton Health Center. When I interviewed for the job here, the board of directors offered me the position after two others had turned the job down. The board was clear about issues that had to be dealt with in the first 120 days or we were in real jeopardy of CHC being eliminated in this area.
“I wasn’t intimidated about the tasks in front of me, as I had already worked on those type of issues when I was in Pleasanton.
“The first 120 days I worked every day, sometimes 18 hours a day,” Salas continued. “It was a crash course in crisis management. I even slept in the office at night for a few hours in the dental chairs, and then went right back to work. I had to reduce staff from 77 to 49 positions, but that put us back on a better financial footing. We went department by department and either brought in good people or promoted good people from within to management positions and that basically saved CHC 10 to 11 years ago.”
Salas said he worked with Daniel Diaz, the Director of Operations for the Texas Association of Community Health Centers, and together they proved to the feds that the Gonzales Center was operating smoothly, soundly and had satisfied all of the accreditation requirements demanded by the Joint Commission and HRSA regarding ambulatory health care centers.
“We had to prove we had a sound finance department with the right credentials and a good medical director,” Salas said. “We moved Penny Christian into the COO position, and Christina Cordova into the Director of Nursing position. We had Angela Fonseca, who was our receptionist, move into the finance department and she quickly started cleaning the mess up we had there. The Feds and the oversight groups saw we were making the right moves and that our position had changed, and they gave us good marks for the most part.”
Salas also said a big turning point in CHCSCT came in Luling.
“We started building relationships with Gonzales and then in Luling,” Salas said. “They had been promised a big medical building, but nothing had happened. Then we got a $5 million grant and we were able to build a nice facility there. We forged a relationship with Blue Bonnet Trails mental health company and started a cooperative partnership where we could do ambulatory medical care and dental from our end, and mental health services from their end.
“It worked out so well that we identified other communities that were not being fully served with these services. We added Victoria in 2012, Bastrop and Elgin in 2013, and Lockhart in 2015. Now we are providing quality service to that entire service area, we are financially sound, and we are providing quality care to the people who come to us. It is no longer just a free clinic; we offer one-stop services in our offices in the three areas we have identified.”
Another change Salas instituted at CHCSCT was the focus on people and encouraging people who work there to speak out and offer suggestions for improvement. This collaborative style of management has paid big dividends over the years with a variety of key people, but none more than Rafael De La Paz, the current Deputy Chief Executive Officer and future Director of CHC once Salas retires at the end of the week.
De La Paz graduated from the University of Texas in 2009 and was looking around for a job in his field during the Great Recession. He was told there was an opening in Gonzales for a receptionist, and he jumped at the chance.
“Things were pretty tight back then, but I wanted to get my foot in the door and see what I can do in my chosen profession,” he said.
“One of our managers said that Rafael was an instigator, that he was asking lots of questions about why we were doing things the way we were,” Salas said. “I looked into it and found that his curiosity and insight was exactly the type of questions we needed to be asking if we were going to be able to provide the best service possible to our people and to keep up with changing times.
“I gave him a couple of projects to take charge of, and he did great in everything we asked him to do. He grew into an excellent manager, and I can’t wait to see the continuing changes and evolution Rafael will bring to CHC of South Central Texas in the future.”
“Henry was a pioneer in overcoming the stigma of mental health,” De La Paz said. “He was three or four years ahead of the curve in bringing mental health into the main stream of services offered alongside medicine and dental. Under Henry’s leadership, we now have seven sites that serve over 20,000 people a year. That’s up from 18,000 last year.
“We’ve focused on serving the people—not just the ones with insurance but everyone,” Rafael added. “The only thing that will get the people in trouble who work here are the ones who don’t care for or about the people.”
De La Paz also said the he has been honored to work alongside Salas.
“He is an amazing man. In this world, he is a father, a husband (wife Lori of 28 years), a man’s man. He has so much integrity that he is an inspiration to everyone who works with him and meets him. I can only hope that I can imitate his soul and inspire others just like he has.”
Salas will be retiring on Friday, but plans to remain on as a consultant for two more years. Last Friday, a huge celebration filled the GG Steaks & Spirits’ banquet room as friends, colleagues and admirers gathered to say goodbye to the man who saved CHC in Gonzales and grew it into CHC of South Central Texas.
“It has been challenging, rewarding, enlightening and satisfying to see what we have done,” Salas said. “But there are great managers and great employees in place, and the company is in great shape. I am excited about its future.”