- Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
Christann Vasquez has seen close-up what happens when people don’t have health insurance.
Her father, Benny Barreto, an air-conditioning repairman in Chicago, passed away at age 42. Her mother, Lucy Gonzalez Barreto, who raised five children, lived to age 53.
“They both had a chronic disease and no access to regular care,” says the president of the under-construction Dell Seton Medical Center at the University of Texas and, at the same time, chief of University Medical Center Brackenridge, which the teaching hospital will replace. “My parents could have still been here if they had had access to care.”
That is why catchphrases such as “human care,” which the Seton Healthcare Family employs regularly these days, mean more than just hospital rebranding for Vasquez.
“We are taking care of people just like us in the community,” Vasquez, 54, says in her unassuming office located at the end of a labyrinth of hallways at the old Brack. “We are going to be accountable to the population and build a healthier community, keeping them healthy, not just helping them when they are sick.”
While this “Austin model” concept has been around for a few years, the key buildings along Waller Creek in the northwest part of downtown are finally taking shape. Vasquez, who led efforts to plan and build a hospital in San Antonio, now works closely with the new Dell Medical School at the University of Texas and taxpayer-funded Central Health, along with a network of community clinics, to keep people in their “medical homes” and out of high-cost emergency rooms.
“That’s why the new hospital is the same size as this one, despite our growing community,” Vasquez says.
Clay Johnston, dean of the Dell Medical School, under construction on the facing banks of Waller Creek, thinks Vasquez is a natural teammate on this vast, regionwide health care project.
“Christann is very focused on quality,” he says. “And she digs deep into the data to find solutions. We are already working well together, and I look forward to even closer collaborations.”
Headed to health care
Vasquez, who grew up in Chicago, was a tenacious kid whose parents scraped together enough money for her to attend Catholic school.
“I absolutely loved school,” she says. “I’d rather die than miss school because I knew the value it took from my family.”
She enjoyed sports, even though her mother insisted that she and her sisters be home by 7:30 p.m.
“She was a very traditional Mexican woman,” Vasquez recalls. “Joey could stay out until 9 p.m. I was always questioning that. It’s not fair. I was the first girl to move out of the house, too. Usually, you don’t leave the home without getting married first!”
She attended a vocational high school. When she asked for a letter of reference to apply for college, Vasquez was told she shouldn’t go. So she asked somebody else and studied social work at a liberal arts college.
“I thought I was going to save the world,” Vasquez says with smile. “I was going to help the girls of Chicago’s inner city to make better life decisions. Did it for six months until I realized: I’m probably not that person.”
Always attracted to health care, she had taken finance and accounting courses in college. So she signed on with the revenue side of a small hospital, then moved up to a bigger one. She took those skills along to hospitals in Texas, where her husband, Scott Vasquez, had taken a job after finishing law school.
Scott and Christann grew up half a block up from each other in Chicago and had dated since age 17. At first, they attended the same college, then he transferred to Northwestern University. Once, she was tempted to quit college for a day job with benefits.
“He told me, ‘I wouldn’t be dating you if you didn’t finish college,’ ” she remembers. “So I stayed in college.”
Family and career
In Texas, Vasquez worked as a director of admissions at a giant West Houston hospital while the family settled in to the West University-Southside Place area. What did that job entail?
“You oversee registration and capturing insurance verification … collecting copays prior to admission, so we can bill appropriately,” Vasquez says. “If you do it right, it’s not a fight with an insurance company.”
Along the way, she earned a master’s degree in health care administration from the University of Houston-Clear Lake.
Meanwhile, the Vasquezes raised three kids. One went into law like their father, another into health care administration like their mother. The third is a senior at St. Mary’s Hall in San Antonio, where the family moved in 2009. They have kept a house there while renting an apartment in Austin before the full move.
Vasquez caught Seton’s eye while serving as executive vice president and chief operating officer for San Antonio’s University Health System.
“I would describe her management style as results-oriented,” says Seton President and CEO Jesus Garza. “And she is experienced in working with medical schools. She was also extensively involved in construction of the new hospital in San Antonio. Finally, she is genuine and transparent in her professional relationships.”
A new way
“I was intrigued by what was going on here,” Vasquez says about why she answered the call of a national recruiter for the Austin project. “I love transformation; I love change. There’s a brand-new medical school coming out of the ground. And I love academics, training the next generation of providers.”
Collaborating with the medical school, Central Health and community clinics, the Seton team uses the Toyota method of lean production.
“We’re driving waste out,” Vasquez says. “And adding value that’s meaningful for patients. We are going from pay-for-performance to focusing on the value of what we bring.”
She says that, at this point, no other city is using a community partnership quite like Austin’s. One of her favorite ways to illustrate all this fresh activity is to take a guest to the top of the Brack garage to see the construction.
“You see all these cranes, and you have a vision of what’s going to happen on this large piece of property,” she says. “When you start to see it all, it’s really very exciting to think about. Now we routinely take people up there to imagine in five years what it’s going to look like and the value it will bring the community.”
Vasquez says that the Seton team in place has been building this new model for health care delivery for years.
“We are trying to not have people come into the emergency room for their care,” she says. “And we are seeing decreases. We really focus on that: The right care at the right time and the right place.”
Correction: This story was updated to correct the number of children raised by Lucy Gonzalez Barreto.