As Bruce Yarwood prepared to leave his native California 17 years ago for life as a lobbyist with the American Health Care Association in the nation’s capital, a close friend told him to temper expectations toward his new job.
“He said to be patient – that it would take 10 years for me to make my mark,” said Yarwood, who recently had the “interim” label removed from his title as AHCA president and CEO. “I called him crazy for saying that, but ultimately he was right. It takes a long time to cultivate relationships, to win respect and to convince people that your word is your bond.”
That vindicated friend was Vic Fazio, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives as the Sacramento district’s Democratic congressman from 1978 to 1998. Fazio instantly recalls that 1988 conversation.
“I told him that it takes time to be effective in Washington. The city and government is more complex than anywhere else,” Fazio said. “It takes awhile to get to know people and to develop a problem-solving style that fits. He took my advice to heart, did an incredibly good job and it is great to see him rewarded.”
Yarwood’s “reward” wasn’t a brass ring he chased throughout his long and diverse career. In fact, he had to seriously contemplate accepting the job offer last fall.
“I pulled a lot of mushrooms out of the ground considering it,” he said. “I didn’t throw my hat in the ring when Chip Roadman retired (in 2003); in fact I purposely stayed out because I was still having fun at my lobbying job. But I’ve still got some fire in my belly. There are things this organization needs to do and the idea of making it better was appealing.”
The Sacramento native has a multi-dimensional context on healthcare and long-term care in particular. He has a payer’s perspective from when he served as manager of Medi-Cal, California’s Medicaid program; the nursing home administrator’s viewpoint from his stint as chief operating officer at Crestwood Hospitals in northern California; and nonprofit association experience as executive vice president of the California Association of Health Facilities.
“I go back with some of these industry people to when I had long sideburns, horn-rimmed glasses and more hair that wasn’t gray,” he quipped.
Yarwood, who has a daughter, son, two step-sons and five granddaughters, insists he’s not looking at a short run as AHCA president.
“I’m 63 going on 49,” he said. “I am definitely not a lame duck. I look forward to a couple years just to start this puppy rolling.”
One of his first orders of business has been to smooth over the rift created last August when 15 large AHCA members said they were withdrawing support to make the seven-year-old AHCA arm, the Alliance for Quality Nursing Home Care, an independent association. Yarwood, then acting AHCA president and CEO, said he was distanced from the conflict because he was in Sweden, where he and his wife Margareta (who is Swedish) have a home. Now as full-time president, he has had time to assess the situation.
“The Alliance put forth a wake-up call for the entire industry,” he said. “They claim that AHCA has been the same organization for 50 years and is hidebound by tradition. They say it’s not a question of issues, but tactics.”
In response, AHCA has launched “real changes,” such as reducing its board of directors from 100 to 15, three of whom are Alliance members.
“We won’t lose the Alliance in its entirety – maybe three, at the most,” Yarwood said. “I’m hopeful we can arrive at a solution where they all will stay.”
Mending fences and coalition building are two of Yarwood’s primary strengths, Fazio said.
“Bruce is a healer,” he said. “He can relate to people and can bring them together. He’s now in a position to orchestrate the diversity that exists and make it work.”