Behind the Scenes, Banner Health Hospitals Strive For the Ideal Picture of Health

Banner Health’s labor and employment guru Cyrus Martinez on keeping the business of hospitals healthy

Photo by Douglas Kunath.

Growing up in Mora, New Mexico, a small town with a graduating class of only 45 students, Cyrus Martinez could not envision working for a health system with thousands more employees than people living in his town. Now a leader of the legal department for Banner Health—the innovative nonprofit health system and second-largest employer in Arizona—Martinez cannot imagine being anywhere else.

After majoring in economics and religious studies at the University of New Mexico, Martinez got his law degree from Northwestern University. Although Chicago was an exciting change of pace and climate, he missed the Southwest and took a position at a law firm in Phoenix after graduation, where he learned the basics of labor and employment law. He found his niche in employment law working over a year at the largest labor and employment firm in the country, and then as in-house counsel in labor and employment for the Hershey Company in Pennsylvania.

But when a close family member was diagnosed with cancer, Martinez moved back to Phoenix yet again. “She was treated at the Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center and received great care,” he recalls. So, when an opportunity to work as in-house counsel at Banner came up, Martinez pursued it immediately. “There was a halo effect that Banner Health had among my family that made me care about the organization,” he says.

At Banner Health, Martinez’s responsibilities are divided into two parts. One half involves serving as a generalist in support of Banner Medical Group, which employs physicians. In that capacity, his responsibilities include everything from day-to-day advice and counsel to physician employment agreements, third-party vendor contracts, and audit requests from the office of the inspector general.

The other half of his job, the labor and employment side, involves Banner’s 40,000-plus employees and 29 hospitals in seven states. “Hospitals are like little cities,” Martinez says. “They employ people from all walks of life—everyone from environmental services workers to surgeons. With so many employees, you have the whole universe of things that affect the human condition to deal with.”

It’s a fluid and dynamic line of work. “You’re dealing with issues like what to do about an employee who fails a drug test—but has a medical marijuana card—or how to handle a situation where two employees were dating, then one gets a restraining order against the other—but they both still work at the same hospital.”

The legal department at Banner Health consists of about a dozen attorneys, each with specific responsibilities and a specific client base within the organization; some focus on real estate, others on intellectual property, and others on licensing. Because Banner Health has facilities in seven states, the lawyers must stay on top of changing laws and regulations for both health care and employment in each state. “We have facility HR people at every hospital, with whom I work closely, to keep up with the changing laws,” Martinez says.

“California recently enacted a new employee sick-leave policy that is different from that of other states,” Martinez says, offering an example. “Because we have a facility in California, that meant we had to develop a California-specific policy in order to comply.”

Martinez receives training and continuing legal education to keep up to date. In addition, as a member of the American Health Care Lawyers Association and the Association of Corporate Counsel, he can network with fellow attorneys who face similar issues. Both associations send daily updates on changing laws and regulations.

Banner also relies on outside counsel for information and training. “They have many clients facing the same issues and changing regulations as we are. So they can share with us how their other clients are dealing with those issues—which we can then tailor for Banner.” An instance of that proving helpful was learning how other employers are adapting to the definition of full-time and part-time employees under the Affordable Care Act.

As a member of Banner’s secondary professional activities committee—along with representatives from regulatory, compliance, HR, and physician compensation departments—Martinez deals with physicians who want to do work outside the scope of their employment with Banner.

“This might be a physician who wants to speak for a pharmaceutical company at a conference, or a surgeon who wants to consult with a company on the development of a prosthetic limb,” he says. “They need to get permission from the committee first. It leads to a lot of really interesting conversations, such as who owns the intellectual property, and of course, we’re always concerned with how the physician’s activity will reflect on Banner.”

Martinez describes his work style as wholly collaborative. “At a law firm, everything is designed to make life easy for lawyers so they can do their job because they are the revenue generators. But working in-house at Banner, I’m in a support role. I build relationships. I don’t want to be the faceless guy in the legal department.”

“I like to get the stakeholders on board before making any changes to see how they will be impacted and what their needs are. I like to do training in person whenever possible so I can read body language and foster trust. Of course, with our facility in Alaska, for example, it’s not always possible to be there in person.”

Martinez especially relishes opportunities to come face-to-face with cutting-edge law. Recently, for instance, Banner Health needed to determine how to accommodate transgender members of the workforce. And when the National Labor Relations Board recently redefined  joint-employer status, he had to help assess the impact that would have on the company, the largest private employer in the state of Arizona.

When Martinez speaks on the future of Banner Health, his outlook is positive across the board: “We will work to fully integrate our newest acquisitions, to enjoy economies of scale. We’ll continue working to improve our visibility on the national health-care scene. And we’ll adapt to the ever-changing health-care landscape and be an industry leader.”

Although responding to the constant changes can be challenging, Martinez enjoys the benefit of never having to second-guess why he does what he does for Banner. “They save lives,” he says. “And I’m a part of that.”