Gerardo Pinedo: Alum Takes on New Challenges in L.A. County Department of Health Services
Late last month, when most of downtown Los Angeles was looking forward to time off for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, Gerardo Pinedo (Class of ’01, B.A., interdisciplinary studies/public administration) was busily moving back and forth across Figueroa Street. For a few days, the Los Angeles native had to be in two places at once. On one side of Figueroa Street, Pinedo was completing his 10-year career in the office of now retired County Supervisor Yvonne Burke, where he most recently served as her senior legislative and budget deputy. Across the road, he was moving into the offices of the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, where he recently began his new job as interim director of government relations and policy.
Reporting directly to the executive director of health services, Pinedo is responsible for oversight and coordination of state and federal health care issues advocacy and lobbying to ensure the services of five public hospitals in Los Angeles County with an annual department-wide budget of $3.3 billion, a task for which he is well-equipped. In addition to his experience in Burke’s office, he has served as chair of the Los Angeles County Audit Committee where he worked with county auditors to ensure the efficiency and integrity of publicly funded programs.
Pinedo’s sparsely decorated office of several days displays photos from his career in local government and of family, friends and mentors. Occupying a place of honor in the room is his framed diploma from California State University, Dominguez Hills, where he now teaches as an adjunct faculty member in the College of Business Administration and Public Policy (CBAPP) and serves as a member of CBAPP’s advisory board.
Dateline had the opportunity to visit with him for a conversation on the challenges in the health care industry, student activism and working one’s way through school.
Dateline: How did you start your career in public administration?
Gerardo Pinedo: I think it all started with student government in schools. From junior high through college, I was always very successful in student body elections. There was a pivotal year for me when I was a student body president at East Los Angeles College (ELAC). The budget of the campus was roughly $18 million annually, give or take a million or two. The student body was about 16,000 students. Prior to me taking over student body president in [the mid-1990s], the L.A. College District had a formula that said the colleges would be funded based on enrollment. When the formula was adopted, ELAC was under-enrolled in comparison to the other colleges in the area. When the formula was implemented, the roles were reversed. ELAC had a higher enrollment and everybody else was down.
The school was in line to get paid a lot of money, about $2 million more as part of a performance incentive type system. When everybody else was down and ELAC was in line to receive that extra money, they decided to change the rules. I happened to be student body president at the time and I was a lot younger and... I guess I would categorize myself as fearless, more willing to take challenges. I remember going down to the trustees and advocating our case. One of the trustees put his hands over his ears. The others were disregarding my comments and I was pleading with them to keep the original formula they had promised and not to go back on the promise of funding us to that $2 million level.
I said, ‘You may be covering your ears now, but I’m going to come back with more students next time.’ I rented several large school buses and went on this campaign for several months. I recruited between 100 and 200 people. We loaded the buses and went downtown to some of the trustee meetings. They didn’t allow us to take our picket signs into the hearing room, so we picketed on the sidewalk. Then we’d lay them down gently and we’d pack their hearing room.
To make a long story short, we ended up getting not only the $2 million, we ended up getting $2.5 million more. In the process, I had some very educational conversations one-on-one, off the record with two of the trustees. That issue got me going and piqued my curiosity. In the process of those several months, I was able to really interactively see the influence that elected officials have.
Dateline: How have your previous positions prepared you for this job?
GP: I’m not a health care professional and I’m not a health care delivery expert myself. I don’t have M.D. after my name. Luckily, we have people on the frontlines that are the true experts. They have master’s degrees or Ph.D.s in the health field, or many of them have medical degrees and now they’re helping with the administration.
My role is challenging in a different way. Whereas they deal with people living and dying in operation rooms and emergency rooms, I have to deal with how do we make sure we have enough money to keep those emergency rooms open and how we ensure that we have support from Congress and the state legislature to make sure that the board of supervisors can keep the doors to all the hospitals open.
Dateline: What are the greatest challenges facing L.A. County’s public hospitals?
GP: One is the financial crisis that we’re in. We have a major financial shortfall facing the entire Department of Health Services that in the next three fiscal years gets us into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Number two is a whole slew of administrative regulations and challenges that we have from the old White House, the outgoing administration, that we have to work on trying to fix, which, if we can fix them, ultimately results in more dollars for L.A. County.
Dateline: Is the nursing shortage affecting Los Angeles?
GP: Absolutely. We’re having the same problem that everyone else is having. The health department has been trying to recruit, but it’s not easy when private hospitals do things like offer nurses a free car, plus the same salary. Our salary and benefits are very competitive. The one area where we’re making a lot of progress is the county’s own inside nurse training and retention program. The ones that we grow ourselves tend to stay with us, because they’re already county employees and they probably feel a sense of gratitude for having been given the education through partnerships with schools in the area, so they tend to stay longer.
Dateline: What made you want to come back and teach at your alma mater?
GP: I feel a sense of personal debt to Dominguez Hills. Through the [interdisciplinary studies] program and the support I got from the people in the department of public administration, I was able to get my bachelor’s degree. I tell everybody that bachelor’s degree is the golden passport to future success. I remember when I had it framed and put it up in my office for the first time, thinking, ‘Wow, that’s really a passport.’ It’s like membership into a club and I wouldn’t have been able to do it without Dominguez Hills.
A lot of the students that are there today have similar situations to what I had, they face similar struggles. Many of them have children or are the first to go to college in their families. Many of them are working full time. Very few campuses reached out and embraced students like me so early on like Dominguez Hills did. Today, it’s almost fashionable to offer online classes and make it as easy as possible for the working adult to get a degree. Some of the most prestigious schools in the nation are offering this now, but Dominguez Hills was among the first, certainly the first [institution] that I knew of, to welcome people like me and to help us get our degrees. So, the help I got there makes that my favorite school of any school I ever attended. I love my other schools too, but Dominguez Hills is always one I feel a special connection to. I’m able to go back and teach and help students and I like doing it.
Dateline: Why do you support CBAPP as an advisory board member?
GP: Dean (James) Strong is a wonderful man. I have the utmost respect for him. He genuinely cares about the school. You talk to him and you see his actions. The man genuinely wants to make Dominguez Hills a better and better institution. You see that in the way he built the advisory board, the way he promotes the school, the way he advocates for students and for more money for the school. I think he’s fantastic and because of that, I’m happy to be on that advisory board.
Dateline: Who have been your mentors?
GP: Iris Baxter at Dominguez Hills. I took a couple of classes with Dr. Baxter where she took me from A to Z on public budgets. It’s thanks to her that I was able to understand government budgets to the point where I eventually worked my way up and became the budget and finance deputy for Yvonne Burke, which indirectly, helped me get to this position.
Henry Cobos was my mentor at ELAC and my music professor. [He was] of the most astute political minds that I’ve ever met and I’ve met a lot of them. Believe it or not, even though I’ve been here a very short while, I’ve already faced a few challenges. Just the other day, I was thinking if only I had [Henry] here to help guide me. I didn’t realize it at the time, I never thought of him as a mentor till years after he died in 1999.
I’ve had another mentor, Patricia Miller, who was senior deputy for Yvonne Burke, the health deputy. She has over 40 years of working for elected officials. She has taught me how to deal with very strenuous and adverse situations between the elected officials and high level government administrators. She’s taught me some valuable lessons about how to be able to walk out of there with success but still be respectful and able to develop a good relationship that originally started off as adversarial.
Dateline: How would you advise your students on how to get to where you are now?
GP: Two things. One: if you can, don’t stop working. Try, as hard as it may be, to make it through your bachelor’s, master’s or law degree and keep your foot in the door by working, especially in the public sector. There is a unique set of challenges that primarily revolve around the civil service system. They’re so difficult to overcome that once you’re in that system, you should try to stay there while advancing your education because if you leave the workplace, it’s so difficult to get back in.
Two: Constantly shoot for a higher target, don’t stay in the same position too long unless you’re going to get promoted. And if you’re not getting promoted at your current job, look elsewhere. Sometimes the biggest promotions come when you leap from one organization to another. I think students need to take on a little more challenge and a little more risk because a lot of times, it pays off in very large dividends.
- Reported by Joanie Harmon