A Q&A with Geronimo Rodriguez, Chief Advocacy Officer at Ascension Texas

An attorney by training, Geronimo Rodriguez currently serves as the Chief Advocacy Officer for Ascension Texas, one of the leading non-profit and Catholic healthcare systems in the United States. Previously, he served as Counsel to the Solicitor at the U.S. Department of Labor, overseeing 140 labor and employment laws in the United States during the Clinton Administration.

In his role leading advocacy strategy for Ascension Texas, Geronimo strives to advance policies that help achieve the Ascension mission to provide personalized quality care to all individuals, with special attention to the poor and vulnerable. He leverages the impact and influence of the comprehensive Ascension Texas healthcare system, including our over 12,000 associates, to make the greatest impact in our communities.  Geronimo also oversees Ascension Texas’s multi-million dollar annual investment in community organizations. He also leads the workforce development and diversity efforts, which are focused primarily on meeting business needs by connecting the local community with high demand healthcare jobs.

Insights & Outlooks: What are the major issues or gaps that you’re focused on as you think about developing a strong healthcare workforce that can fulfill your mission and improve patient care?

Geronimo Rodriguez: We’ve had two kinds of shifts going on: One is the transformational changes in healthcare that have moved healthcare services away from acute hospitals into urgent care centers and physicians’ offices. The second one is a higher level of responsibility and obligation to the poor and vulnerable community that we serve. There are challenges with transportation and affordability in our community, and the feedback we got from our community was, “Well, that’s really nice, but what are you doing for me and for my family so that we can afford to continue to live in our community?” We really took that to heart—and our workforce development and diversity department pivoted strategies because of that specific feedback.

We identified an opportunity to connect our local community to high demand healthcare careers and provide pathways to incumbent frontline workers to middle-skill, high demand careers that help ensure they can live and thrive in Austin, while also meeting the region’s business needs. We have entry-level positions such as medical assistants and patient care technicians, but we’ve advanced our strategy beyond just providing a pipeline of entry level jobs. We’ve also invested in the Austin Community College to ensure our associates grow and become associate degree nurses (ADN) and bachelor’s degree nurses (BSN). We’ve supported state legislation to provide ADN to BSN opportunities that cost less than $5,000 a year, and take only one year to complete, which gives our nurses affordable opportunities to upskill. We have over 2,000 job openings in this community for registered nurses among the local health care employers. We identified surgical technicians as another opportunity area, and we have partnerships now with The College of Health Care Professions and Austin Community College to identify more individuals and get them out into the pipeline.

Insights & Outlooks: As you look at the policy framework supporting training and life-long learning for your frontline workers, along with partnerships with higher education, can you point to a few specific initiatives that you think would be of interest to other states who are grappling with similar skills gaps?

Geronimo Rodriguez: The Austin area economy calls on us to come up with more creative and innovative solutions. With 3% unemployment and 2 job openings for every person looking for a job, at some point, an organization has to turn the mirrors on themselves, take responsibility and share with the community their strategy for investing in the community and meeting its healthcare needs. We focus on educational systems—even at the middle school level—to help students explore jobs in healthcare. We provide opportunities for those students to come and explore tech, radiology tech, nursing, clinical assistant, patient care technician, and medical assistant opportunities. We’ve also been working with Austin Community College for years to create programs that serve both our surgical technicians and our associate degree nurses.

Insights & Outlooks: If you had a magic wand, what kind of federal policies would you want to see deployed?

Geronimo Rodriguez: If the U.S. Department of Labor and policymakers were able to identify communities that could utilize their workforce development dollars to upskill incumbent workers and identify high-demand careers in each community, we could be far more targeted in how we direct people to and prepare them for jobs that will enable them to plant and keep their roots in their own community. One other policy perspective might be encouraging businesses paying tuition for education—not reimbursement but tuition payment on the front end, so that we don’t expect individuals who are in poverty to pay for a class or two on their credit card, and then reimburse them on the back end when they’ve taken out the money with a 25 to 28 percent interest credit card. There is an opportunity to be just, to be equitable, and to be fair in those particular federal policies, and it’s important for our policymakers to understand the implications —and unintended consequences sometimes –  of the policy choices they make.