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Profile—Steven Escoboza is more than ready to take charge of the region’s Healthcare Association



Steven Escoboza Is More Than Ready to Take Charge of the Region’s Healthcare Association

teven Escoboza has a history of taking on new, at times controversial, projects and he has a knack for bringing people together.

So it comes as no surprise that the 53-year-old veteran of the health care industry agreed to confront one of San Diego’s most daunting challenges: improve access to health care for 640,000 uninsured San Diegans, raise reimbursements to local hospitals, and help turn around the industry’s ills locally.

The venture begins Feb. 26, when Escoboza succeeds Gary Stephany as the president and CEO of the Healthcare Association of San Diego and Imperial Counties.

Community leaders are confident he’s up to the job given his background.

In 1997, Escoboza confronted perhaps his toughest challenge when he agreed to head a new, managed-care type system to reduce the costs of Medi-Cal in Los Angeles County.

The plan had difficulties in attracting patients from the start and still struggles in competing against giant private providers.

In previous jobs, Escoboza arbitrated hearings with union members representing management; helped clean up a problematic San Diego County health department; and campaigned for a new mental health care initiative in San Diego.


Ticket To Success

Born as the second youngest of 14 children, Escoboza learned early on that hard work and a good education would be his ticket to success.

The son of a Mexican furniture maker and a Mexican-American mother, Escoboza grew up in a mainly African-American neighborhood in the Wilshire District of Los Angeles.

At his Catholic parochial school, a swift hit with the infamous ruler reminded Hispanic children like Escoboza that “perfect English,” not Spanish, was the only language to be spoken.

At the Loyola Catholic High School in Los Angeles, Escoboza learned discipline by reading 50 American classics during the summer.

A self-proclaimed “history buff,” Escoboza is still an avid reader. He notes his taste in literature has regressed to “trashy authors” and suspense novels like “The Bone Collector.”

After graduating from high school in 1965, Escoboza briefly attended junior college, then, “Being 18 years old and full of bravado,” Escoboza and his buddies beat the draft by joining the Air Force.


Tour Of Duty

His tour in Vietnam began in 1968 and lasted two years. His job, ordering spare parts for aircrafts, would pay off.

Back in Los Angeles, his acquired skills landed him a night job at Northrop Grumman Corp., which helped build the Boeing 747.

During the day, Escoboza was a full-time student at Cal State Los Angeles. He graduated in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration.

Like so many veterans, Escoboza left some of his youthful naivet & #233; behind.

“You have to really think about what are the implications and consequences of your actions,” he says, looking back at his Vietnam experience.


Impressive Encounter

During his college years, Escoboza also met his wife-to-be, Estella. Though she “shined him on” at their first encounter in a popular restaurant, they wed in August 1970.

Estella has a master’s degree in counseling and now settles custody cases in Superior Court.

Back in 1973, however, the couple was still struggling.

The arrival of their first daughter, Natalie, in July 1973, precipitated Escoboza’s urgency to start a career. In 1976, the Escobozas had a second daughter, Erin Marie, who teaches in Los Angeles. Natalie, meanwhile, is pursuing both a law degree and an MBA at UC Berkeley.

A newspaper ad placed by the Los Angeles Unified School District opened the door to Escoboza’s 13-year career. At the school district, Escoboza worked his way up to director of operations, running a 5,000-employee organization, he says.

In 1985, a colleague at the Los Angeles district took the job as personnel director for San Diego County and asked Escoboza to become her assistant.


Health Analysis

His job description called for an organizational analysis of the Health Department.

Escoboza explains, “The county Board of Supervisors was concerned about the health department (there were) reports of management problems.”

The problems were precipitous.

There were two reported deaths at local hospitals resulting from alleged malpractice.

In 1986, San Diego’s health director resigned under pressure and Escoboza was promoted to assistant health director.

He worked under Dr. Bill Cox, a retired Navy admiral and surgeon general of the Navy. Escoboza says he knew his chances of getting the director’s job were slim. He didn’t have the right credentials , chiefly a medical degree.


Department Leader

When the county of Santa Barbara offered him the opportunity to head its health services department in July 1992, Escoboza accepted.

During his five-year stint, Escoboza pursued a master’s degree in public health at UCLA. With his degree in hand in 1997, Escoboza was ready for the next challenge.

Los Angeles County had just set up a managed care-type system in which the county health plan and six private providers would be paid a flat monthly rate for enrolled Medi-Cal patients.

Escoboza became president and CEO of the county’s plan, the Community Health Plan, and director of managed care at the county’s Department of Health Services. To date, the county struggles to compete against the health care giants for Medi-Cal patients.


Financially Breaking Even

In June 1998, the Los Angeles Times reported the Los Angeles County HMO signed up 78,784 members by April to financially break even. The target then was 150,000.

Escoboza says he grew the network from 10,000 to 100,000 Medi-Cal members, establishing contracts with 100 doctors in the private sector.

In 1999, Escoboza’s two-year contract with the county was up. He knew he was heading down a dangerous path and limited the contract to avoid conflict with unions.

“It was a calculated risk,” he says.

In March 1999, Dr. Robert Ross, the former director of San Diego’s Health and Human Services Department, hired Escoboza to consult him on mental health care.

Ross left July 14 to head The California Foundation in Woodland Hills.

Escoboza became interim director while the county conducted a national search to permanently replace Ross. Escoboza says he applied for the job but then opted to withdraw his application for reasons he didn’t want to disclose.


Peer Praise

But Dr. Rodrigo Mu & #324;oz, a psychiatrist and medical director at the Scripps Health adult mental health program, says he’s disappointed.

“The Hispanic community is rapidly growing and underserved, it would have been very good (if Escoboza would have been named director),” Mu & #324;oz says.

But, he says, Escoboza is also a good fit for the local Healthcare Association.

In his private life, Escoboza says, he plans to take up golfing to spend time with his wife , and, he adds , to network with people.

A Porsche enthusiast, Escoboza also likes to take his favorite ride around town, but only on the weekends, he says.

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