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Retiring HAMC CEO prepares for new path

By Staff | Oct 11, 2019

Sue Sitter/PCT HAMC CEO Patrick Branco at his desk. Branco will retire on Dec. 1.

After announcing his December 1 retirement last week in a letter to Heart of America Medical Center and clinic employees, CEO Patrick Branco set about preparing for the path ahead of him.

As he visited with the Tribune this week, he organized papers and computer disks on his desk, and used the term “path” often when referring to his career and life.

Describing his retirement plans, Branco said, “They’re kind of squirrely. We’re putting our house up for sale. The joke is we’re moving south.”

“Well,” he added with a laugh, “everything is south of here.”

Branco said he and his wife, Vicki “still have family in Minneapolis that’s one set of grandkids the other is in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, that’s my son’s family, so our best thought is moving to Sioux Falls,” Branco noted.

“It’s a community that’s large enough to have city attributes without a big city feel. It puts us much closer to visit family without having to go there every 10 minutes.”

Branco said his son, Michael, gave him the reason to take the position with HAMC in late 2015.

“It’s a bit of a sensitive story,” Branco said in a quiet voice.

“I was in Idaho. I had just moved from Alaska to Idaho. I had just been there for just two years. I had two hospitals there. My son was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, stage four. He lived in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and my wife and I decided we had to get as close to home in the Midwest so we could help take care of him.”

Branco said his son died shortly before he accepted his new position in Rugby.

“So,” Branco added, “We continued on the path to support three young kids and his wife. I came to Rugby on that path. We grew up in the Midwest and so this is a natural and easy fit for us. But the circumstances that drew us here were not what we would choose.

“But we love being here in the Midwest.”

Branco described Rugby as a “gorgeous” community.

“Decent people. (Rugby) gives such a nice first impression as you drive into town the lawns are well maintained; the homes are very pretty, nicely maintained. There’s busy movement; there are young people and older people. It’s just that perfect blend of community, and you sense it.”

Branco added, “I have seen a lot of small towns in my life, and I think the true blessing here is the churches outnumber the bars by a great number. That tells me a lot about a community.”

When asked about his accomplishments at HAMC, Branco noted, “It’s a bit of a tricky answer, because I don’t want any negatives at all. But when I arrived, there’s one thing I pride myself on, it’s taking places that may not be at the peak of operation; doing things beautifully and magnificently because I’m not much of a maintenance guy, just keeping things rolling.”

“I look at opportunities to improve, opportunities to grow, opportunities to do things better.”

Branco added, “When I arrived it’s a gorgeous place; it’s been well-run, but there are always things we can do to improve.”

“So, I set out on a path of making those improvements.”

Branco continued, “Very shortly after I got here, we I’m willing to take the blame, but we discovered a number of financial operations that were not operating at their peak, and a lot of things could be corrected. We got right to the brink of being one of the critical access hospitals in America to close. We would have been the first hospital in North Dakota to close.”

“I decided that we weren’t going to let that happen. We rolled up our sleeves, and for the past two years, we have been engaged in everything we can to rightsize the organization, improve our processes so we’re doing things the most efficient way; trying to keep our doors open for the future, not just for today.”

“We can always make short term recoveries, but, this is a mission aimed not only at preserving us for today, but really looking forward to tomorrow and beyond.”

“I think this being the largest employer in town is a critical need of the community to have good, well-paying jobs here, and then, the most important mission is the care of our residents in long term care, the patients in our ER, the patients who come through our clinic. All of those combine to why it was important to save Heart of America,” Branco said.

Branco said the corrections made a difference for the HAMC community, but, “We’ve got to stay on that path of improvement. This is not the time to say, ‘Ahh! We made it!'”

“In this world, healthcare and federal financing of healthcare is always tenuous,” Branco noted. “So, we always have to be on guard for what are the next things that come along that cause us more hurdles and more challenges. So, you can never rest in this role.

“And likewise, my successor and successors will have to do that with the support and help of the governing board to help strategically plan for what are the right approaches to take in the future. What do we invest in; what do we back off from. It’s a constant I use the term fluid hydraulic. If you put pressure on one, it raises another. So, if we decide some of our services aren’t being utilized enough, we can put more money into a service that’s really critically needed.”

Branco said he’s a proponent of the “continuous improvement” business model developed by W. Edwards Deming in the mid-twentieth century.

Branco said the model is based on the idea that “we don’t have bad people; we have bad processes. People don’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘I think I’m going to go to work and do a bad job’ because they don’t like people and they don’t like healthcare and they don’t like sick people. They don’t do that. They wake up going, ‘I’m going to do my very best today.’ And if we put processes in front of them that allow or cause errors, it’s the process at fault. Continuous process improvement is the real goal. Always look at the things that get in the way of the right things.”

Branco said he wasn’t sure what path HAMC would take in the future.

“Transitions are time for transition. There may be somebody just spectacular waiting out there who’s the right fit for the next phase of the hospital,” Branco said.

“I got us through the rocky time. Now, perhaps it’s the time for a positive outlook and what are we going to grow into (in the future).”

As for the path ahead of him, Branco said he was still looking at a few other communities south of North Dakota for his next home.

“My wife hasn’t completely signed on, but I’m a native Texan, so a part of my heart says, ‘Let’s go to New Braunfels, Texas. It’s in the heart of the Hill Country of Texas, just north of San Antonio. It’s beautiful; its a German community, and a way south (of Rugby).'”

However, Branco said he wasn’t completely sure about living in Texas.

“I don’t do well in heat. I’ve always been in Alaska, Idaho, North Dakota, Minnesota I’m a northern guy,” Branco said with a smile.

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