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Close-up: Luis Leon

New CEO of Paradise Valley turns around ailing hospital

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When Luis Leon took over as chief executive officer of National City's Paradise Valley Hospital in March, he was faced with some daunting challenges.

A South Bay landmark, the 103-year-old institution was in dire straights -- and hemorrhaging money rapidly.

"Up to $2 million was being lost every month, and the facility had failed recent inspections by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services," Leon said.

An executive with Victorville, Calif.-based Prime Healthcare Services Inc., which specializes in purchasing and salvaging distressed community hospitals, Leon joined Paradise Valley when his employer purchased the facility last March for $30 million. The sale encompassed 30 acres and included the 301-bed acute care hospital, three medical office buildings and a nursing care center, plus a behavioral health care facility in Chula Vista.

Luis Leon

In his current role, Leon, 42, is in charge of all the hospital's operations, overseeing everything from clinical operations to the janitorial and nursing departments.

The facility, which had been operated by the Seventh Day Adventist Church since its inception in 1904, has since undergone some dramatic -- and encouraging -- changes.

Faced with a labyrinth of operational and financial issues, Leon delved into his new job with characteristic tenacity and enthusiasm. His first order of business was to establish "a team of people committed and enthusiastic about addressing challenges." He and the hospital's staff worked hard to appoint new chiefs for major operational posts, including a medical director, a pharmacy director and heads of the cardiovascular and emergency departments.

In addition to recruiting top-notch personnel, an "important goal was to establish open communication with staff," Leon said. To that end, he set up weekly meetings with senior management and physicians, and worked to educate them about the daily operations. "One of things I enjoy the most is collaborating with others, and motivating them to do what it takes."

To maximize efficiency, Leon spearheaded the purchase of important new technology, including a multimillion-dollar, Web-based picture archiving and communications system. Other investments have included $5 million to improve emergency room diagnostic equipment including an MRI machine, endoscopic instruments and a new electronic information system. Also in the works: a new $3 million software and electronic medical records system scheduled to go live by Dec. 1.

Overall, "we have set higher quality standards, improved operational efficiencies and invested millions in state of the art technology and infrastructure improvements within just a few months," he said. "It's been an unbelievable experience, and a huge, positive change for the hospital -- and things are getting better every day."

In fact, since Leon took charge, the hospital - which, with 1,100 hundred employees, is National City's largest employer -- has received multiple seals of approval, included full accreditation from the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations, and successful surveys form the Department of Health services and Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services. These results were especially critical, said Leon, as Medicare and Medi-Cal payments account for 70 percent to 80 percent of the hospital's revenues.

On the financial front, with the support of Prime, Leon has been able drastically reduce the hospital's losses, to a point where the hospital is now breaking event.

While Leon has been hugely successful since coming on board, running a complex facility like Paradise Valley certainly has its challenges. Just minutes from the border, the hospital predominately provides care to underserved populations.

"Forty percent of our patients are on Medi-Cal, 35 percent on Medicare, and 30 percent have no insurance at all," he explained. "Our goal is to make sure everyone has access to health care, and to do so in the most cost effective way possible."

In fact, since March, the number of uninsured and indigent patients served has nearly doubled, largely due to increased ER efficiencies.

A native of Cuba, Leon comes to Paradise Valley well equipped to meet the challenges of the job. He is fluent in Spanish, and can interface well with the hospital's multicultural staff and patient base. He completed his undergraduate studies from La Sierra University in Riverside, holds an associate of science degree in X Ray Technology from Loma Linda University and a Ph.D. in Health Science from Ashford University.

Leon has been with Prime for more than 10 years, and previously was chief operating officer of that company's Desert Valley Hospital in Victorville, a facility he was also successful in turning around.

A self-proclaimed "clinician, as well as an administrator," he got his start in the industry as a physician's assistant with Desert Valley Medical Center. He received certification from the University of California, Davis, and was a practicing PA -- specializing in internal and emergency room medicine -- until a few years ago.

"I really enjoy being a hands-on clinician, and think my experience in that arena has helped me inherently understand the business," he said.

Leon began a steady climb up the administrative ranks while working in the emergency room at Desert Valley. His first promotion was to medical director of the ER; he then became its administrator, and was eventually named COO of the entire hospital.

Prime Healthcare has eight hospitals throughout California, and Desert Valley is the "smallest yet the busiest, so offers a solid training ground," he said.

Armed with years of experience both in the trenches and as a respected administrator, Leon is keenly focused on seeing Paradise Valley succeed.

"This is a South Bay institution -- in fact, the oldest hospital in the community -- which was precariously close to being shut down," he said. "I believe the area needs it and won't survive with out it. My goal is to make it flourish."

Moore is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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