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Health care CEO: Idaho needs more civility, less extremism

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Mike Baker

When I was growing up in Utah, every summer my parents would host an ice cream party for the neighborhood. My Mom was a nurse and my father was an electrician, and they loved people. Every year for 44 years on the last Monday in August, neighbors and friends would bring ice cream, bananas, cones and toppings and gather together for hours in the front yard just catching up and being a community. The night culminated in an epic water fight, led by my dad, that we all still talk about today. We didn’t all practice the same religion or have the same political beliefs, but as neighbors, we knew we could come together around ice cream and the joy it sparked in the kids and families who called our neighborhood home.

It’s the middle of winter here in North Idaho, but recent events have made me reflect on those childhood moments, and ask myself what I can do to create more “ice cream party” conversations in our community. As the leader of Heritage Health, which serves almost 30,000 patients each year with medical, dental, mental health and substance use disorder treatment, I’d like to believe that I’m in a position to do so.

Yet, for all the challenges of 2020, delivering care to a politically-divided patient base has been the toughest. When COVID-19 hit last March, we followed the CDC guidance, like all health care facilities. We began requiring masks to enter our facilities, which was, to say the least, not universally endorsed in our community. Many saw it as a threat to their personal freedoms.

Like other health care leaders, I attended many of the public health meetings regarding the mask mandate. I found myself outside visiting with someone with opposing views. When we didn’t end up finding common ground, this man looked at me and said: “Because you don’t agree with me, you are now my enemy and if I had my gun, I’d shoot you right here and now.”

Fortunately for me, he didn’t have his gun and things ended peacefully, but that moment really shook me to the core.

As CEO, I have to make tough decisions for the greater good of our teams and the people we serve. As with the mask requirement, sometimes this sets our employees up for confrontation and jeopardizes the sacred relationship between our health care teams and our patients. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Where we should have conversations and shared values, instead we have security guards screening for patients who threaten our medical staff. Last fall, a 115-pound medical assistant called me in tears after a 6’3, 280-pound man verbally assaulted her for simply following the policies that we implemented on the recommendation of the CDC. This isn’t the sort of thing people expect when they go into a career in health care and it represents the worst of our current situation.

In our mission to provide hope, inspire change and extend life, we don’t get to decide which half of our patient base we favor. At the end of the day, we truly don’t care who you voted for. We aren’t trying to force anything on you. Every health care professional I know works hard to serve our patients and guide them through their healthcare journey. We live and work by the values of mutual respect, common understanding and believing in the good in humanity. In my heart, I believe the silent majority of Idahoans are too.

It’s my nature to lay low, do my job well and raise my family in peace. But the past year has made me want to stand up and speak out more in our community. That’s why, in the coming months, Heritage Health, Marimn Health and other local leaders are creating a new initiative aimed at fostering civility through small group discussions with community members with diverse viewpoints. I believe this will help people learn how to actively listen, even when we disagree, and that we can create a safe space for robust discussions.

Leaders in health care must model appropriate, productive behavior. We cannot be sucked in to the latest conspiracy theory or movement of the moment. We need to be the steady ship in the sea for our teams, and they need to see us deal with different ideologies using the principles of civil discourse. We must model behavior that shows that it is okay to disagree, and that we can find common ground on most subjects if we are respectful and actively listen to the other side.

The quiet people like I was, living in the middle, are the secret to breaking the gridlock because they outnumber the small percentage of extremists on either side, even here in North Idaho.

I remain optimistic that we can apply the golden rule and join together as a community to end the extremism that is destroying our country.

Mike Baker is the CEO of Heritage Health. 

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3 comments

  1. Thank you, Mr. Baker for addressing this very important issue. I hope the moderated small discussion groups will produce better communication within our community.

    I do have one statement in your letter with which many people in our area take umbrage: there are NOT extremists on both sidesin Kootenai County, just as there were NOT good people on both sides in Charlottesville. Nobody but the extremists in this county has paraded with guns through downtown streets, or brought in outside inciters to intimidate health officials, defied the mask mandate and issued death threats to people who speak out against them. Please do not judge citizens in this community as being anything like the extremists.

    I have been reading about Libertarians and Constitutionalists in an effort to understand how we can come together, as my own political philosophy embraces some parts of these ideologies.

    Groups such as the IFF, 3%’ers, Oathkeepers, Ammon’s Army, the Proud Boys, seek to drive out solid citizens in our area in order to set up their own no-laws state. I am not imagining this, there is plenty of documented evidence. Many of the Republican State legislators are aligned with IFF and are dismantling our citizen protection one bill at a time. Please enter these discussions without a blindfold.

  2. Well said Mike! Thank you for being a pillar for positive change.

  3. Good job Mike!