The CEO of the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium says it’s been a rough couple of years, but the organization’s finances have stabilized.

Charles Clement is only 39 years old, but he told the Sitka Chamber of Commerce this week (1-29-14) that the experience had cost him some gray hairs and about 25 pounds. After taking the top job at SEARCH in early 2012, he had the unpleasant responsibility of reporting a $4-million dollar loss the previous year.

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SEARHC CEO Chuck Clement says he's spent the last two years "putting out fires." (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

SEARHC CEO Chuck Clement says he’s spent the last two years “putting out fires.” (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

In an interview with media shortly after taking the job, Clement described a rash of problems plaguing SEARCH: issues with vendors, accounts payable, billing systems, and electronic health records. SEARHC has since cut programs, like the Bill Brady Healing Center and its air ambulance service, and restructured its employee benefits.

Clement did not say that every problem was resolved at SEARHC, but he did say that the organization was ready to look outward — and giving a Powerpoint presentation to the Chamber of Commerce was a small step in changing the message.

“I think hopefully you see that our participation is trying to step up and look out to the community about how we might be better partners. And I think through things like this — helping me fix my computer, and get all situated — we have the opportunity to exchange ideas, and develop a message that is sort of cross-pollination of ideas. I’m sure you guys are doing it, but by standing up and saying, Chuck you should do it also, then I’m also on message.”

Clement also discussed the duplication of services in communities, like Sitka and Juneau, where SEARHC is not the only health care provider. It’s been a source of tension in the recent past. Clement said that living in our respective “silos” used to be the norm, but he saw collaboration as the future.

“These are very difficult times to be in the health care business — incredibly difficult times. They are times of great adversity. And the comfort I find is that wherever I go, whoever I talk to, there’s sort of a common interest. There’s no reason for these things to drive us apart. In fact, they should drive us together to find new ways to collaborate, innovate, and not duplicate services within the respective communities that we provide.”

Clement, however, did not rule out the advantages of consolidation, especially in rural health care. Last year SEARHC acquired Sitka Medical Center. He said he receives daily Google alerts about similar moves around the country, as providers try to broaden their base of services.

During Q&A Clement turned to city administrator Mark Gorman and asked him to “throw me a softball.” Gorman, who took the top job in Sitka last October, is the former vice-president of Community Health Services at SEARCH.

Gorman asked, What would help you be successful in Sitka? Clement responded that it was remaining as transparent as possible, and maintaining an atmosphere of collaboration. He said this approach is the key to changing SEARHC’S course.

“I have no desire to repeat the last two years, which was this scramble to put out fires. And it’s incumbent on me to reach out to anybody who will listen and say, By working together we can make sure we don’t put ourselves through this.”

Clement punctuated his address with statistics: SEARHC remains an economic force in the region with annual revenues of about $115-million. It employs about 1,000 people in 18 facilities in Southeast — 500 of whom work in Sitka. The average salary is $66,000 a year.