Steve Schilling was never formally trained in health care, but he transformed a once-failing free clinic in tiny Weedpatch that cared for migrant farmworkers into one of the nation’s largest community health center networks — one that sprawls across the Central Valley and serves tens of thousands annually.
Clinica Sierra Vista’s mission today remains the same as it did 44 years ago when Schilling first arrived: to care for the impoverished, the downtrodden and the underserved.
Next month, Schilling — who came to Clinica Sierra Vista in 1972 as a business manager and was appointed CEO before his 32nd birthday — will retire. Amid all the turbulent changes to health care that have taken place in the last four decades, Schilling, at least, has remained a constant in the Central Valley.
Brian Harris, CEO of the North Carolina-based Rural Health Group, has been selected as his successor and will soon direct the nonprofit Schilling has built into the nation’s fourth largest Federally Qualified Healthcare Center. Harris will begin Jan. 29 and work closely with Schilling during the transition.
Schilling will remain involved with Clinica in an "unofficial advisory capacity," according to a Clinica news release, and serve as president of the newly-formed Clinica Sierra Vista Foundation.
His imprint on the organization’s growth and success has been deep, but Schilling said his departure won’t change Clinica Sierra Vista’s core values.
“The mission and commitment and spirit of the place is pretty embedded and isn’t possessed by one individual,” said Schilling, 71. “It’s shared by 1,200-plus employees who bring their best every day and have worked very hard along with me to build this.”
It was never his intention to go into health care, Schilling said. After graduating from Chico State University and taking a tour of service with the Peace Corps in Venezuela, he planned to return home to do administrative work with a municipality. Except no work was available.
His mother spotted a help-wanted ad in the San Francisco Chronicle for a business manager at a small, rural clinic in Weedpatch, a Kern County farming community that is home to the Sunset Labor Camp, made famous by John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” One of the job requirements was that the hire must speak Spanish. Schilling, fluent, packed his suitcase and was on his way.
He discovered that the clinic, then Clinica de los Campesinos, was in disarray and plagued by scandal. It was non-compliant with certain government regulations, underperforming and had been forced into receivership. The executive staff had been terminated and board authorities were suspended.
“I walked into a pretty shaky situation. I didn’t know anything about the work and how prepared I was to do the work. I don’t think I was terribly prepared. … It was a real personal challenge to see if I could turn this thing around,” Schilling said. “And I did.”
Within his first 18 months at Clinica, the organization had created a sustaining revenue stream by billing insurance companies and Medi-Cal, the state’s insurance for the poor, and rolled that back into the nonprofit, Schilling said.
Then they started expanding.
They constructed a Lamont clinic and changed the name to Clinica Sierra Vista, signaling to the community that their doors were open to everyone and not just farmworkers.
Before long, community members who felt they were being neglected by health care providers in Frazier Park approached Schilling.
They wanted a health center. Clinica delivered.
That kind of story is emblematic of Clinica’s mission, Schilling said. When communities would cry out for access, Clinica would answer the call. They did it in Lamont, Frazier Park, the Kern River Valley, east Bakersfield and other areas where people might have had an insurance card in their pockets but no access to care.
“Pretty soon, we were opening up branches in all of the communities,” Schilling said. “It’s what sets Clinica apart from others. We try to make sure our health centers are located in areas where there’s the greatest need."
It's not a philosophy reserved strictly for health centers. When Kern County, in dire financial straits, considered eliminating its family medicine residency program at Kern Medical Center in 2013 — and along with it a crucial pipeline to the recruitment of new doctors to a federally underserved medical area — it was Clinica Sierra Vista that stepped in to save the day, taking ownership of the program and housing it at a newly constructed health center in east Bakersfield.
"We can't lose training programs that have the potential to bring new health officials to our communities," Schilling told The Californian in 2012, describing the deal as an extension of his 40-year effort to attract new physicians to the Central Valley.
Initially, when Schilling first arrived in Weedpatch, he planned to stay in Kern County for just one year — a “short term pause” as he looked for his dream job, he said — but Clinica kept growing, and he kept finding himself enjoying his job.
“It’s the work that keeps you here,” Schilling told a group of young professionals in October during a Kern Leaders Academy lecture he delivered. "It's challenging."
The topic of the lecture? Something he's spent his entire career addressing — poverty's impact on health.