Sunday, February 18, 2018
Health

Salute to a Suncoast Health Centers visionary

Bradley Herremans has made a career out of helping people get the health care they need. Two careers, actually. He spent 22 years as a Medical Service Corps officer in the Air Force. And now the retired colonel serves as CEO of Suncoast Community Health Centers, which provides health and dental care to many of eastern and southern Hillsborough County's poorest families. Herremans, 52, recently sat down with the Times' Richard Martin to talk about Suncoast's mission, and how his military background helps him carry it out.

How did you come to be involved with Suncoast after a long military career?

I retired as a colonel in the Air Force in 2008. My last assignment was up in Great Falls, Mont., as the commander of the medical unit at Malmstrom Air Force Base. I was getting ready to retire. I had a couple of job offers lined up, in San Antonio, Texas, and then in the Washington, D.C., area. There were also a couple of hospitals I was talking to in Montana. We were in the negotiating phases. I think my wife was getting concerned that I was actually going to accept one of those positions.

During my Air Force career, I was stationed twice at MacDill Air Force Base. My wife always liked the Tampa Bay area. Her goal, once we were coming out of the Air Force, was to move back to Tampa Bay.

I was sitting at the officers club at Malmstrom and I get a phone call from George Hammond. He was working at Suncoast, and he said, "Brad, I'm calling to offer you a job." Then I said, "George, I appreciate that but I honestly don't remember applying for the job."

He said, "Well I have your resume and I have your cover letter, and it looks like you meet all the requirements of what we're looking for." My wife had sent my resume and cover letter to Suncoast Community Health Centers, unbeknownst to me. And he says, "Well, I already talked to Kim (my wife) and she says you'll take the job." I said, "Oh, she did, did she?"

I started here on the first of August 2008 as the chief administrative officer. And I held that position for 2 1/2 years before I became the CEO.

Tell me about Suncoast Community Health Centers.

Suncoast is a federally qualified community health center. We serve the entire community. We don't turn anyone away. We do take some private insurance. Our biggest payer is Medicaid, the Hillsborough County Health Care Plan and some patient pay. We offer a sliding fee scale, based on a family's ability to pay for health care. Suncoast provides primary health care and general dentistry as its core practice. We did just add a pediatric dental clinic to our inventory.

We provide services in eastern and southern Hillsborough County, and we have OB (obstetrics) services in Lakeland. Right now, we have 13 different operational setups that provide some kind of dental or medical services to the community. That includes mobile units.

Tell me about the mobile units.

We have a mobile dental program, which is operated out of a 40-foot RV that has three dental chairs. Everything on it is state of the art. We use it predominantly for preventive dental services for children. We now just completed our second year of participating in a school-based dental sealant program with Hillsborough County schools, where our dentists and hygienists visit second-graders in Title I (low-income) schools. They do a dental exam, provide fluoride varnishes, and also provide dental sealants on teeth that get them into adulthood.

The evidence is tremendous showing the effects of that. What we found is dental issues for the kids are the No. 1 reason children miss school in Hillsborough County. This last year, we saw 5,600 children. These services are provided free to the children.

Tell me about Suncoast's growth during your tenure.

Five years ago, we saw about 25,000 patients. This last year, we saw 44,000. We've grown from four facilities; now we're at 13. We've gone from about 190 employees to 325 right now.

I attribute the growth to a couple of things. The need in the community probably became greater during the recession of 2008-2009. You saw a whole lot more people seeking our services who, prior to that, did not seek our services. The other thing, we made a conscious effort back in 2008 to upgrade and renovate and modernize all of our facilities. We put about $12.5 million into renovating or expanding our facilities. It was a big investment. We wanted anybody to walk into one of our community health centers — even our own employees — and go, "I would be proud to take my own family to this facility for health care." We wanted to change the paradigm of "this is where poor people go for health care" to "this is where the community goes for health care."

What is the biggest challenge with your job, or achieving Suncoast's mission?

Getting the word out in the community of the services available to them. That, by far, is the biggest thing.

How has you military experience helped you in leading Suncoast?

The biggest skill set I probably brought to the table coming out of the service is the ability to develop a strategic plan and then implement it. It gives people a vision of exactly what we're trying to achieve. We develop a mission, a vision, core values that we could all look at it, and develop a three- through five-year plan of goals and objectives that we wanted to follow, and then meet.

Do you live in eastern or southern Hillsborough County?

I live in the historic district in Plant City. I sit on the board of directors for the Plant City Chamber of Commerce, which has just been a wonderful way to get involved in the community. I absolutely love Plant City. It's a small town, a small-town atmosphere, great people, very welcoming. And also still logistically very close to Tampa and Orlando, which are both areas we enjoy.

Weekend Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity. Richard Martin can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3322.

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