Job Spotlight: Sarah Lang, chief executive officer of Valley Healthcare System

tadams@ledger-enquirer.comSeptember 16, 2013 

ROBIN TRIMARCHI/rtrimarchi@ledger-enquirer.comSarah Lang is the CEO of Valley Healthcare System, which has a new facility at 1600 Fort Benning Road.

ROBIN TRIMARCHI — rtrimarchi@ledger-enquirer.com Buy Photo

Sarah Lang is a native of the small West Virginia town of Mount Hope. So perhaps it's appropriate that she has for nearly two decades been offering hope to the less fortunate in the Columbus area in the form of lower-cost medical, dental and vision care.

Lang launched Community Health Center of South Columbus in August 1994, coming here from Michigan at the urging of the Rev. (now Bishop) James Swanson, the then-pastor of St. Mary's Road United Methodist Church.

She had never heard of Columbus, much less south Columbus, but was quickly informed that it was the rougher side of town. But she thought: What's the big deal. There are trees and grass here. There are people who are caring and want to improve their neighborhoods.

So Lang took the leap and started the nonprofit health care facility on Benning Drive. It has grown steadily through the years, but often under the public radar.

With expansion into Talbotton, Ga., in Talbot County, and Fortson, Ga., in Harris County, the operation's name was changed to Valley Healthcare System.

And, finally, a year ago a brand new 30,000-square-foot center at 1600 Fort Benning Road replaced the old Benning Drive and Delaney Avenue offices.

The $12 million facility has injected pride into the area and given those using it a sense that their health-care needs are being met in a quality manner and atmosphere, said Lang.

Her efforts are now being recognized. The Georgia Association for Primary Health Care has selected her as the state's "Administrator of the Year," an honor she will accept next month in Augusta, Ga.

The Ledger-Enquirer talked with Lang, now 62, recently about her job, the growth of Valley Healthcare and the mission she has to help those in the community. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Discuss the original facility and how you got set up.

We worked with the Columbus Housing Authority to identify a location for us on the south side, and they did. It was one of their apartment buildings. It was a building that had four apartments in it. That floored me to begin with because it was so small to have four apartments. It was on Benning Drive.

When I walked through the building there were these flying roaches, and I thought, hmmm, no, let's back out of this building. But they assured me that they could work miracles, and let me tell you they did. In three or four months they renovated that building. We were given a deadline by the granting organization to start the service, and by Aug. 14, we were ready to see patients.

Did residents embrace the facility immediately?

It took a little time to get up and running … There was some reluctance to come to the south side, to a facility that was associated with Baker Village. And, initially, we saw a lot of family members and even enlisted men from out at Fort Benning …

We also were getting patients from Buena Vista, Ga. That's when we decided early on, when I first opened the doors, that we would have extended hours for Saturday. That's because we were having patients from the chicken processing plant. They were off work Saturday mornings and it was the best time for them.

But, even today, not everyone knows that your health care services exist?

It's interesting to me whenever I sit down and talk to people. I say, you know, Valley Healthcare provides medical, dental, pharmacy, optometry, behavioral health, tele-medicine, tele-health, X-rays and lab services -- on a sliding-fee program. But nobody knows about us. And we had been in two locations in Columbus for nearly 20 years.

How has usage at Valley Healthcare been through the years?

It's been a steady increase as people have found out about us. Part of our issue is we've not done a lot of marketing. If you needed us, you knew where we were. I was telling my colleagues out in the state that whenever there's an economic downturn, our community health center seems to be the one that recognizes it first. We see an increase in the number of uninsured patients.

Every three to five years we'll see that increase in uninsured patients who will find us.

So you take people with zero insurance?

We have a sliding-fee program. It depends upon your household income and the number in your household. (The charge) could be as low as $30. We've increased our fee. But it's based on the federal poverty guidelines. That's how we base our sliding fee, or discounted fee, program. For the homeless, of course, there's no charge for our services.

How many patients does your facility treat?

We saw about 8,800 people last year; that generated 24,000 visits.

Is Valley Healthcare a training ground for doctors, nurses and other skilled positions?

Oh, yes. We have a rotation of physicians, medical students and nurse practitioners, physician assistants, registered nurses, medical assistants, dental assistants, dentists. They're all rotating through, but we've hired a few of them.

We're a federal national health service corps placement site. So if you have loans that need to be paid off, we're a placement site to come and work and have those loans paid off.

How did you fund your $12 million center?

It was a combination, as I call it, of the three-legged stool. We have the federal grants, our own reserves, and a bridge loan through CB&T.

How about funding of day-to-day operations?

Through patient fees, of course. We also take all insurances. The folks who have insurance help to subsidize those that don't have insurance. Also, as a nonprofit, you must be a grant writer. So I identify grants that will help to subsidize the care to those that don't have coverage.

Are there waiting times at your center?

The wait times, we're working on that, I've got to say. That's part of our goal for this year is to decrease the wait times for our patients. We've applied to become recognized as a certified patient centered medical home. Through that certification, we must reduce our wait times for patients to no longer than 50 minutes.

Your people see a little bit of everything -- accidents, injuries, illnesses?

Oh, yes. Chronic diseases, diabetes and hypertension are No. 1 and No. 1 for patients that we're seeing. There are colds and sniffles. And there are referrals. We get a lot of referrals and follow-ups from the emergency rooms at all of the hospitals. They will say: Oh, you don't have insurance? I know just the place to go.

What does a health-care CEO do? Is it a tough job?

I believe a CEO for a community health center, it's two-fold. One is it's a mission. You must be mission-minded because of the patients that you come in contact with every day. Everyone has a story, and you want to respond to that.

The other part to that is … you're constantly out there looking for resources to help you continue that mission. So it's applying for grants. You must be a grant writer. But if you also work with the federal government and Congress, there's a level of standards that is placed upon you.

So it's researching, needs assessment, continually looking at the community to see that the needs are assessed and met.

You have to wear a lot of different hats -- grant writer, researcher, data reviewer, advocate. As we say here, it's never a dull moment.

What's a typical day like for you, in the office or traveling to the satellite offices in Harris and Talbot counties?

I am usually in my office, lately, because of the Affordable Care Act, trying to prepare not only as an employer, but as a health-care provider. We're trying to get the word out about what this means to individuals who don't have insurance.

So lately I've been here in the office preparing, training, on webinars with the Department of Health and Human Services and the state primary care association, and just gearing up for the implementation of the Affordable Care Act here in the state.

You're explaining to them that, starting next year, health insurance is mandatory?

They will have health insurance. It's going to be some training for those individuals that have not had insurance before.

The state is making sure that those of us that are going out there to the public, giving out information, are trained efficiently and effectively to get the correct information out to people. As you know, there could be a lot of misinformation given out.

What is your major challenge?

As always, as a nonprofit, it is resources and resource development. It's financing, of course, but also human capital, and that's getting the right folks to deliver the quality of care that's demanded of us.

What's most rewarding about your job?

When I hear from a patient who says: I came not knowing what to expect, and not only did I get my eyes checked, but I found out that I had diabetes and was taken down the hall to a physician. And after the physician saw me, he said you really need medication. And then I was taken down a second hall and I got my prescription filled at a discounted rate.

Now when I hear things like that, I'm actually doing my job, and I'm meeting their needs. I can go home and say, I did it this time.

Is there more growth ahead for Valley Healthcare?

We're looking at other communities, actually. Other community representatives have come to me and asked if we would consider coming into their neighborhoods.

Even across the river into Alabama?

Oh, yes. There are no geographic boundaries for us.

Have any of the major hospitals here tried to hire you away?

No. They know and recognize my commitment to community health.

They view you more as an asset than a competitor?

That's right. We are an asset to the hospitals because we reduce the numbers of patients that are walking through their emergency room doors.

BIO

Name: Sarah Lang

Age: 62

Hometown: Mount Hope, W.Va.

Current residence: Columbus

Education: Bachelor’s degree in psychology and social work, Alderson-Broaddus College in Philippi, W.Va., 1973; master’s degree in hospital and health administration, Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, 1981

Previous jobs: Chief executive officer of the Michigan Primary Care Association; adjunct instructor at Michigan State University; and also worked as a health care consultant and special education teacher

Family: Husband, James, and son, Zach, 23, a student at Miller-Motte College in Columbus

Leisure time: Enjoys watching classic movies, such as “Lawrence of Arabia,” and traveling to visit family members in various U.S. states

Of note: Recently selected “Administrator of the Year” by the Georgia Association for Primary Health Care

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