BROOKSVILLE — Robin Wright likes to mind the bottom line.
As a child, Wright watched her mother keep the books for the family business in her native Georgia. She earned two degrees in accounting, and later landed a job as an accountant for the Putnam County Health Department in Florida.
"I started in 1998, thinking it was going to be a short-term gig, and I fell in love with public health," Wright said.
That passion stoked an ambition to places beyond the accounting office. Fourteen years later, she is leading health departments in three counties.
Last week, Wright, 46, started her permanent job as Hernando County Health Department administrator. She still serves as interim administrator in Putnam and holds the same post in Citrus County as both departments search for permanent leaders.
Wright's predecessor in Hernando, Phil Spence, retired last month at the age of 65 after a year on the job. Like Spence, Wright has a record of turning around struggling departments. But she takes the reins of a Hernando operation on firmer footing than when Spence arrived in November 2011.
"Phil did an outstanding job getting the Health Department back on a stable track," she said.
In addition to the budget, Wright has a major task on her to-do list as she begins her duties: exploring the possibility of shifting the department's primary care services to a private provider.
Wright worked her way up the ranks in Putnam after earning her master's degree from the University of North Florida. By 2004, she was the Health Department's business manager.
Her actual duties transcended that title.
"I was very, very fortunate to work in a small health department because I got to touch every program," she said. "It's truly why I am where I am."
The active hurricane season that same year served as a hectic catalyst for her ambitions for the top job. When Putnam County activated its emergency operations center, she helped coordinate the Health Department's response, working alongside county commissioners and other officials to open shelters.
"It really was a turning point," she said. "I think I got some confidence that (a leadership role) would be in my future."
Wright was promoted that year to administrative services director, the department's second in command. She was named acting administrator in 2007 and earned the permanent post the next year.
Comparable to Hernando in size and budget, Putnam boasted healthy finances, but inconsistent leadership and a lack of direction that had decimated morale, Wright said.
"It took me all five years to change the culture," she said.
Kena Foster, who was director of nursing under Wright, called her an insightful leader who had a knack for bringing community stakeholders together.
"She is not the micromanaging type," Foster said. "She really respects employees and leads them into a vision."
In 2011, Wright was asked to serve as interim leader in Martin County, where the Health Department was headed toward a deficit. During the six-month stint, Wright developed and enacted a plan to get the department on firmer footing.
She was assigned to the interim position in Citrus County last summer after the leader there retired. Candidate interviews for the permanent job are scheduled for this week.
Hernando's Health Department, like its counterparts throughout the state, has suffered financial hits on several fronts in recent years. Medicare reimbursements and state and federal funding continue to decrease while the county's high unemployment rate drives more residents to seek services, which are priced on a sliding income scale.
By the time Spence replaced longtime administrator Elizabeth Callaghan, the department's reserve fund had dipped into the red by about 3 percent. Spence drafted a plan to bring in more clients with insurance, Medicare or Medicaid to offset the cost of providing services for the indigent. There were no layoffs during his tenure, but seven positions were cut through attrition.
When Spence left, the reserve fund stood at 6.6 percent of the roughly $7 million budget. That is about a percentage point shy of the goal state officials have set for the department.
The most significant impact to services came in June, when the Brooksville office started to close three days each week. The office, at 300 S Main St., had provided general clinical services Monday through Friday. Now it's open for services on Tuesdays and Fridays. On other weekdays, all services are provided at the department's new, spacious building on Forest Oaks Boulevard in Spring Hill.
Spence called it a necessary — though likely temporary — reaction to the rough economic climate. Wright said she will re-evaluate the move to determine when or if the hours might be restored.
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Another assignment could fundamentally change the department's mission.
In most Florida counties, private entities are licensed by the federal government and receive public dollars to furnish basic health care services on a sliding income scale. In Hernando, the Hernando County Community Health Center — a component of the Health Department created to expand primary care services — is the federally qualified provider, receiving about $800,000 a year to provide primary care for poor, uninsured or under-insured residents.
Florida Surgeon General John Armstrong has directed the Hernando Health Department and 10 others to seek out private-sector groups to apply for the grant. Citrus County is doing the same.
The guiding principle, Wright and state officials say: The change must not compromise quality of care. "Who can provide the best-quality services in the community? That's really what it's about," she said.
Last week, Wright toured the Forest Oaks building and held a meet-and-greet with employees. Her message: I have an open-door policy and plan to stay for a while.
On a personal level, Wright says, her Hernando arrival seems guided by divine intervention. For the last six years, she has been in a relationship with Mike Napier, Pasco County Health Department administrator. She recently moved from Lake Mary to New Port Richey, where the couple is renting a house on the Gulf of Mexico.
"I hope I have a very long tenure here," she said.
Reach Tony Marrero at tmarre[email protected] or (352) 848-1431. On Twitter: @TMarreroTimes and @HernandoTimes.