From the halls of Congress and the White House, to Saint Al’s in Boise

Lorenzo Olvera was ready for something new, but familiar.

Olvera grew up in Caldwell, a child of immigrants from Mexico. He graduated 15 years ago from the College of Idaho and headed to Washington, D.C., to work in the halls of Congress and executive branch agencies, finally landing a job as director of the Senate Diversity Initiative in the U.S. Senate.

But he missed his family and his home. That’s when he learned of a job opportunity at Saint Alphonsus Health System that would combine three of his loves: the Treasure Valley; public service; and diversity, equity and inclusion.

This year, Olvera joined the ranks of ‘boomerang Idahoans’ — returning to Idaho to work for the community that raised him. He is the new director of diversity, equity and inclusion at Saint Alphonsus.

A first-generation college graduate from Caldwell

More than a quarter million Idahoans are Latino. Many of them live near Saint Al’s hospitals and clinics, or they might receive health care from Saint Alphonsus initiatives, such as mobile mammograms or COVID-19 vaccination sites.

Olvera’s family is among them.

His mother and father “did the whole immigration thing, like farmworkers, and then landed in Idaho because one of my uncles worked at a local factory — and then everyone else had to join,” Olvera said.

Olvera says he worked hard to advance in Washington, working in both the U.S. House and Senate and in the departments of education and energy. He honed his skills and knowledge under the Obama and Trump administrations. He was building a resume as a specialist in the realm of championing and fostering diversity.

As he was rising through the ranks, his father got sick and was diagnosed with cancer.

“He kind of always taught (us) kids that life is short, you know? And if you’re not happy, like, what’s the point?” Olvera said.

His father said it was obvious Olvera needed a change. “Mijo, I’m proud of you, you’ve done it so far, but … you don’t seem too happy,” he told Olvera.

Olvera came home for a visit to Idaho in 2014 to help after his father died. That experience changed his entire perspective, he said.

Over the next few years, Olvera recalibrated his career.

“I’m happiest when I’m helping other people,” he said.

He and his wife, now parents of a toddler, wanted to live in Idaho. When Olvera learned of the Saint Alphonsus opportunity, he felt the stars had aligned.

“What’s exciting about this particular opportunity is the connection between diversity, inclusion, equity and patient experience — and, ultimately, health equity,” Olvera said.

He sees his role as helping to find ways to help Saint Alphonsus better reach all members of the communities it serves — whether that’s through hiring more diverse candidates, helping employees of all backgrounds feel included and appreciated, and ensuring that farmworkers making low wages, working long hours and often going without health insurance still have access to the health care they need.

“I mean, you’re literally talking about my family. You’re literally talking about my mom,” Olvera said, of the patients his new employer serves.

Olvera is talking about his own father, too. His father died at Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center in Boise.

“I remember spending the night here, up on the third floor in the ICU … with my mom and my brother,” he said. “The dignity that our health workers gave to not just me, but to my mom (was) amazing. … When you’re in a situation like that, one of the worst times of your life — for me, the worst time of my life (as of) today — to be able to feel supported by the staff … those are things that I’ll never forget.”

How does a health care system include everyone?

Olvera jokes that before starting his job at Saint Alphonsus, he knew health care was complex, but “I didn’t realize it was this complex” — so complex that it makes working in the Senate seem simple.

“But honestly, I’m coming in, and I’m like, wow, this is … OK, this is … this is going to be a juggle,” he said.

One of the challenges that Saint Alphonsus and other health care organizations must contend with, when it comes to health equity, is how to overcome the barriers of America’s multilayered health care system.

The health system is a nonprofit, so it must provide charity care to people who cannot pay their medical bills. That can be fairly straightforward when the patient comes into the emergency room with an easy-to-treat problem. But to achieve “health equity,” nonprofit health care providers work to reach all patients: all national origins, all genders, at all income levels, speaking all languages, with all levels of physical mobility, who can or cannot transport themselves to a medical clinic.

And while Saint Alphonsus is a Catholic health system, it seeks to include everyone, regardless of their faith, said CEO and President Odette Bolano.

Bolano explained that Saint Alphonsus, which is part of the national Trinity Health organization, began developing its diversity, equity and inclusion plan about four years ago.

The system began with a roadmap that focused on different ways of reaching the goal of equity, by making changes from top to bottom, she said.

For starters, the boards of directors for Saint Alphonsus needed to “reflect the communities that we live in, from a diversity and a gender perspective.” The organization started 2022 with boards whose members’ ethnic makeup was:

  • 78.6% Caucasian, lower than the 83.8% share of the population within the areas Saint Alphonsus serves.
  • 7.1% African American, higher than the 1.3% share in the community.
  • 14.2% Hispanic, higher than the 8.8% share in the community.

And the health system needed to ensure it was recruiting and keeping talented employees from all demographic groups and belief systems, because “if we’re going to be able to take care of the communities that we live in, and understand the different health needs of the communities … we have to have a diverse workforce that represents the communities that we serve,” Bolano said.

The health system also needs to make its hospitals and clinics a welcoming place for all cultures, she said.

The pandemic exposed many of the failings of American health care. It also exposed the inequities between white and non-white people; in Idaho, COVID-19 was the leading killer of Latinos.

So, even before Olvera, Saint Alphonsus worked to put a variety of voices and faces in the spotlight to represent health care providers and build patient trust, Bolano said.

For example, one of the health system’s OB/GYN physicians, Dr. Guillermo Guzman, became one of those faces of Idaho health care during statewide COVID-19 press briefings.

Guzman urged Idahoans to get vaccinated and described the tragic and worrisome outcomes he witnessed when pregnant patients and their families were not vaccinated for COVID-19.

The effort will now continue under Olvera — and continue its organization-wide aims of supporting the health and wellbeing of everyone, Bolano said.

That even reaches outside the hospital walls, she said. For example, it means when “we look at supplier diversity — that we really look at providing support to minority owned suppliers,” she said.

“And the ultimate goal of all of this is the elimination of health disparities in the communities that we serve,” Bolano said.

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