As president and CEO of CHRISTUS St. Vincent hospital, J. Alex Valdez keeps the medical facility strongly involved in local issues to improve the health of his home state
Even when J. Alex Valdez left Española, New Mexico, in 1972 for a higher education, he knew he would return someday to give back to his home state. After studying business administration at the University of New Mexico, Valdez earned a law degree from George Washington University. In 1982, he fulfilled his promise and came home to New Mexico, where his career would place him in a series of influential roles, including his current position at the helm of CHRISTUS St. Vincent Regional Medical Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico—a position where Valdez has earned national recognition for community-service work.
Before transitioning into the health-care industry, Valdez counts himself lucky to have held a number of positions in state government. While serving as general counsel from 1987 to 1989 under New Mexico’s then-governor Garrey Carruthers, Valdez found inspirational mentors in the governor and his chief of staff at the time, Marilyn Budke, who taught him about the operation of state government and the significance of public service. “It was an exciting period of time for me, and every moment was an incredible learning experience,” he recalls. He credits governor Carruthers with impressing on him the need to always provide the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people. “Regardless of the role that I find myself in, I always try to live to this standard,” he says.
Valdez’s next appointment, as cabinet secretary for the New Mexico Human Services Department, lasted for two very busy years, but at the age of 33, Valdez says he already had an opportunity “to see the potential that people could have in effecting change. Working together with a team of highly skilled professionals, a major accomplishment at the time was transferring the food-stamp program from a paper-food-stamp delivery system to an electronic benefit card. This was significant because it helped to destigmatize the impact on people who needed food assistance.”
In 1995, Valdez was appointed cabinet secretary for the New Mexico Department of Health under governor Gary Johnson, a role for which he was named one of five national recipients of the National Public Service Award in 2002. One of the major initiatives that Valdez and his team undertook during his term was helping people with developmental disabilities move from living in an institutional setting to living in a home-based community setting. For Valdez, not only was this an issue of providing optimal care for people, it was also a human-rights issue. “People with developmental disabilities have a basic human right to live in the community, and society has a responsibility to provide care,” he points out.
Valdez also led innovative work in the area of substance abuse—implementing a syringe-exchange program and distribution of Narcan, to minimize overdoses and the spread of hepatitis C—and reorganized health-care delivery systems for people living with AIDS and behavioral health problems. “These were some pretty exciting and substantive moves to make in new directions,” Valdez reflects.
Valdez joined St. Vincent in 2002 as general counsel, and two years later, the hospital’s Board of Directors nominated him to lead their institution as president and CEO. In his leadership role at St. Vincent, Valdez and the board have added new emergency and surgical departments, and in 2008, they made the significant move of affiliating the hospital with the CHRISTUS health-delivery system. “We needed to be part of a larger system of care so we could assure our continued mission to the community,” he says.
Today, CHRISTUS St. Vincent employs more than 100 physicians and mid-level providers, and the development of this multispecialty group practice positions the hospital well for the opportunities of health-care-reform efforts in New Mexico, Valdez explains. The CEO is also pleased with his hospital’s commitment to community health efforts, noting that local hospitals throughout the country will have to “take a more robust role in improving the health status of the community.”
As a personal goal, Valdez hopes to continue expanding the hospital’s services to North Central New Mexico to allow residents of the region to receive high-quality health care as close to home as possible. “It’s been a drive of mine since I got here,” he adds.
A firm believer in the value of education, St. Vincent holds a summer mentoring program for local high school students, support graduates with scholarships and offers financial assistance for hospital employees pursuing higher education. “It’s really important that, regardless of where you find yourself, you are dreaming of a bright future for yourself and your family, and that means you have to get ready and prepared. Education will open doors, but it is then up to the individual to take advantage of the open doors and walk through them,” Valdez says.
Valdez’s many efforts with St. Vincent and the local community have not gone unrecognized, and in 2012 he was named one of Modern Healthcare’s Top 25 Minority Executives in Healthcare.
But, Valdez also takes time to focus on his own community of employees, and is currently mentoring two hospital managers, developing projects together with them, discussing management and leadership issues, and generally helping them focus on “what they want to do to improve themselves in the workplace,” he notes.
What’s the secret to his success? Keeping a positive attitude. “You always have to look forward to brighter and better days, and be passionate about what you do and why you’re doing it,” he says. “It’s important to surround yourself with energetic people who want to be high achievers, because at the end of the day, none of this is based on the effort of one individual—it’s a collaborative effort.”