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05 Sep 2019

Working Toward a Healthier Coachella Valley: An Interview With Dr. Conrado Barzaga, the New CEO of the Desert Healthcare District

Written by 
Dr. Conrado Barzaga. Dr. Conrado Barzaga.

The last few years have been quite transformative for the Desert Healthcare District (DHCD).

First, there was the need to change the board of directors election process from an at-large standard to a district-based approach, in order to comply with the California Voting Rights Act. As that process moved ahead, voters in the eastern Coachella Valley last November approved the district’s expansion beyond its antiquated Cook Street boundary, creating the potential for improved health-care access and services in the eastern valley—while necessitating that the district figure out how to fully fund services in the expanded district. That voter edict resulted in the launch of yet another rezoning process, which is currently under way.

Through these administrative and organizational challenges, the DHCD has continued to provide support to local health-care providers and community-service programs, addressing needs such as homelessness, public health and behavioral health.

It was against this backdrop on July 31 that the DHCD welcomed its new CEO, Dr. Conrado Barzaga. He brings some 20 years of experience ranging from health-care management and fund development to public-health and public-policy work. After completing his education as a physician and working in his native Cuba, Dr. Barzaga’s career path took him to Argentina, Bolivia and the United States.

Since coming to the U.S., he has held positions as a senior program officer for First 5 LA (2008-2012) and vice president for Planned Parenthood Los Angeles (2006-2008), among other work in health education and public health. Most recently, he spent more than seven years as president and CEO of the Center for Oral Health, where he was instrumental in expanding programs to under-served communities.

During a recent phone interview, Dr. Barzaga talked about the challenges and responsibilities facing the district.

“I believe that addressing health-care needs requires information, intervention and ideas from different sectors,” he stated. “Of course, we need the ideas of those who are the recipients of health-care services, but we also need to understand and listen to the providers of health-care services. So we will inform our work by working with all the sectors of our society that are engaged in health care in one way or another, from the recipients, to the providers, and to the systems.”

Barzaga spoke about the value of data aggregation and analysis in identifying and understanding the health-care needs and desires of the valley’s residents.

“I want to engage our community (in order) to listen and to learn,” he said. “Our board is elected by the people, and therefore, it must respond to the people. They will tell us what they perceive to be their priorities. From a data-gathering perspective, it is important that we gather as many indicators as we can. There are different sources (from which) we can get that data, including California’s Department of Health Care Services and the federal government’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services—you name it. But it is the community’s participation which is going to provide the best intelligence and the best approach to addressing the needs of the district.”

Barzaga addressed the expansion of the district into the eastern Coachella Valley—including some of the area’s most under-served communities.

“We need to understand how the health inequities manifest in the health disparities in the district,” he said. “We need to quantify and qualify those disparities. That will help the district understand where it can have a more profound impact, what the best approach will be, and how the limited resources that we manage can have the best outcome and the best return on the public-dollar investments in the district.” Barzaga wants to utilize surveys, town-hall meetings, focus groups and individual interviews to, in his words, “distill and construct a cohesive long-term approach to how we’re going to foster a healthy one Coachella Valley 2030/2040/2050 (strategic plan).”

Lightheartedly, he added, “I’m in it for the long run.”

The Independent asked Dr. Barzaga how he views the collaborative effort involving the DHCD, the Coachella Valley Association of Governments (CVAG) and the office of Riverside County Supervisor V. Manuel Perez to address the homelessness situation in a number of our desert’s cities.

“Homelessness has important public-health implications,” he said. “At the same time, it’s a very complex issue that requires a collaborative approach to have a collective impact. Thus far, the district-commissioned report (on homelessness in our region) has been the framework for how the community can approach the issues of homelessness in the Coachella Valley.”

The district has committed $3 million to go toward addressing homelessness in the Coachella Valley.

“There was a request for proposals released very recently to invite different providers in the community to come up with ideas and plans on how to help solve the challenge of homelessness in the Coachella Valley,” Barzaga said. “I think the district has been active and has been a significant force in catalyzing and providing resources to our community partners to address homelessness.”

Does Dr. Barzaga feel the DHCD’s expansion of service into the east valley is producing desired results yet?

“From my perspective, the board is deeply committed to the expansion,” he said. “We held six community forums in the first half of this year in Mecca, North Shore, Coachella, La Quinta, Palm Desert and Indio. We’re sharing information with the community about the work of the district, and raising awareness about who we are, what we do, and how we can work together to make the district better. We had very good feedback from the community, and it was made clear through that process that, because of the expansion, some of these priorities are going to shift.

“The realities and the needs of the eastern Coachella Valley are different from the needs of the western Coachella Valley. One of the public-health functions of a health-care district is to address health-care disparities. We believe that there are many, and to address them, we need to understand and apply the lens of the social determinants of health, (in order) to make investments that are long-term, transformational and help to create a healthy Coachella Valley.

“Part of our community outreach effort is the platform we created called the Coachella Valley Health Information Place (CVHIP). It’s an online resource that any social-service workers, health-care providers, community health workers and community members can have access to. It connects different resources with the people who need access to those resources, like housing, food, health care, health insurance, day care, etc.

“To give you some examples, fire departments and police departments are using that (online) resource when they encounter people who need access to services—whether it’s behavioral health, housing, food, you name it. They are using this tool daily to provide solutions to the people they encounter in their daily work. Still, we’re promoting it everyday.”

We asked Barzaga if he had a message that he wanted to communicate through this interview—his first since assuming the new position.

“Rezoning is another topic which is now a priority for the district,” Dr. Barzaga said. “So far, we have had two public hearings this year, and we have two more coming up, and like the municipalities that have gone through the rezoning process, our aim is to have a board that reflects the various communities in the Coachella Valley. So we are really encouraging the public to come out and help us.”

Those hearings will be held during the district’s board meetings on Tuesday, Sept. 24, and Tuesday, Oct. 22. To view the initial set of proposed maps, visit www.dhcd.org/zoning.

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