Inside Track: A voice for everyone
Incoming CEO of Cherry Health relishes in serving Grand Rapids community.
To Tasha Blackmon, the incoming CEO of Cherry Health, the patients are more important than anything.
Many of the nonprofit health care organization’s patients are living in poverty, but Blackmon said she and the staff work hard to ensure everyone receives the best quality of care possible.
It’s Blackmon’s “personal mission” to help those less fortunate. It goes beyond just feeling sorry for them, she said, because she believes anyone, including her, could be “one life event away” from needing the services.
That’s why she thinks it is so important to stand up for those in need.
“I have a way of speaking up and being heard for those who don’t have voices or for those whose voices have been silenced because of the barriers that they face in their lives,” Blackmon said.
“Health care is a right for everyone.”
Cherry Health is a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) that provides health services, including medical, dental, behavioral, vision, pharmacy, integrated care and corrections. It is a “safety net” organization, meaning no one is turned away regardless of insurance status or citizenship status. Patients are required to pay what they can afford, with a minimum payment of $15.
Cherry Health is the largest organization of its type in Michigan, providing more than 300,000 visits to 71,000 patients in 2016. There are 23 locations in six Michigan counties, with nearly 900 staff. The annual budget is $78 million, with 45 percent of that coming from Medicaid.
Many of the Cherry Health centers provide multiple services in one location, giving providers the ability to coordinate care with each other to “achieve optimal health.” She said the organization is “culturally competent,” meaning staffs get to know the communities where the centers are located in an effort to be most effective.
Blackmon said many of Cherry Health’s patients are not necessarily in financial need but schedule visits because of the high quality of service. Blackmon and her six children are among the patients. Cherry Health has a customer satisfaction rate of 94 percent, she said.
Blackmon said she always thought she would work in medicine. Her parents wanted her to be a doctor because, in their eyes, that was the “epitome of success.” She studied physiology at Michigan State to prepare for that career.
But a love for business was sparked after she got a job during college at BioLife Plasma Services, a subsidiary of Baxter Healthcare, a for-profit pharmaceutical company. She said she is a natural businesswoman — someone with an affinity for making and saving money, developing new ideas and marketing — something she inherited from her father.
By the time she had the realization that business, not medicine, was her passion, she had nearly completed her degree requirements. So, she finished the degree in 1998 and then bought rental properties and became a landlord.
“My dad thought I was crazy,” she said.
She kept her job at BioLife, receiving a couple promotions that eventually made her an operations manager, winning several awards during that time.
As part of that job, Blackmon was the local representative of Baxter Healthcare who awarded the “big check” to grant recipients. She presented Cherry Health a $50,000 check. It was the first time she heard of the organization.
She met Chris Shea, Cherry Health’s CEO until Blackmon takes over April 1, and indicated her interest in being more involved in the community.
“I remember being amazed at what Cherry Health stands for,” Blackmon said. “I was amazed at their mission. And that there was somewhere locally in my community that I didn’t know about.”
The two continued running into each other at community events and meetings he had suggested she attend.
Shea, who Blackmon said has grown the organization immensely during his tenure, reached out when there was an opportunity available to manage a Cherry Health medical practice, a position “a step back” from the one at BioLife. She applied and got the job.
“I had come to a crossroads in my life where I wanted to contribute more to the community that I actually grew up in,” Blackmon said, noting BioLife shipped its product to Vienna, Austria, and did not impact the local community as much as she would like.
During Blackmon’s time in the new position, the practice she was managing became the largest of the organization, seeing more patients than any other practice.
She said it was a nice change from her more strenuous job at BioLife, but she was bored, so she offered some assistance to her supervisor, who gave her some projects, such as implementing grant requirements and making community connections.
Cherry Health went through a restructuring after a 2011 merger with Proaction Behavioral Health Alliance and Touchstone Innovare, and Blackmon became the interim operations director of the organization. For almost two years, she held that position in addition to managing a site, responsibilities she said could have been held by two people.
She became the director of operations and hired someone to manage the site. A few years later, she became the health center operations expert in a new role of chief clinic operations officer. A few years ago, she became the chief operations officer. She now has the title of President until she becomes CEO on April 1.
In 2011, Shea gave her the opportunity to participate in a yearlong community health center executive fellowship at the University of Kansas Medical Center, where she learned about finance, operations and background about the FQHC designation she “wouldn’t have learned” in her daily work.
The fellowship happened at the same time she was pursuing a master’s degree in business administration at Cornerstone University. She graduated at the top of the fellowship class and summa cum laude from the master’s program.
Shea had Blackmon manage nearly all of the organization’s departments, one by one.
“At the time, I didn’t realize what he was doing,” she said.
“I think Chris’s master plan was, back in 2010, to begin the process of getting me ready, and I resisted for a long time.”
She said he asked her where she saw herself in five years. “Supporting you,” she responded.
“He just really wasn’t having it,” she said. He encouraged Blackmon to be open to taking his position.
“I just never thought of myself as a CEO. I just didn’t,” she said, noting her most recent role in the organization has helped boost her confidence.
In November 2017, the board offered her the role. Going forward, she plans to tackle many projects to further improve Cherry Health, including expanding its presence in the community.
The only position Blackmon applied for at Cherry Health was the first one she got. And she was never “gunning” for higher positions; they were given to her based on hard work, results and a great team, she said.
“I recognize that it’s not just me,” she said. “I’ve consistently had great people around me that believe in the mission, that support what we do and that really care for our patients.”
Blackmon credited a lot of her personal support to her parents, who ingrained in her hard work and compassion, and to her husband, who gives her the daily support she needs.
She thinks part of the reason for her initial resistance to leadership was because she feared a disconnect from the people she’s serving.
“Being close to the people is important to me,” she said. “But what I’ve learned is I can still advocate for the people and be engaged with the people but make a difference from a higher level.”
She spends a fair amount of time in health centers to visit staff and see the patients. When she walks through the halls, she greets everyone.
“When you think about 900 staff and the fact that I know them and they know me, I think it’s amazing,” she said. “But I think that they know more than who I am is the passion behind who I am.”