Top OCO administrator has roots in nursing

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2006 Healthcare Her
Ellen Holst

Oswego County shares the same maladies as other communities, including having a substantial indigent population.
Oftentimes those uninsured segments of society struggle to achieve an adequate level of health care. There are those who care. Take Ellen Holst for instance.

Holst is the director of the health division of Oswego County Opportunities, headquartered in Fulton. Health is one of seven service divisions within OCO.

"I thrive on challenges and change," Holst said. "I enjoy being a part of a bigger team and surrounding myself with doers."

OCO's health division focuses on "filling gaps for those who don't have access to quality healthcare," Holst said. The largest percentage of OCO clients are uninsured or covered by Medicaid.

Being in the middle of the fray is not unusual for Holst. The middle child of five siblings, she often served as the "go-to" person while growing up thanks to her mediation skills.

Holst's responsibilities appear overwhelming based on the workload that she faces on a daily basis. She oversees two full-time health centers in Oswego and Fulton; three family planning centers; the Women, Infants & Children (WIC) program; migrant health; facilitated enrollment and cancer services programs for Oswego County.

She helps to oversee an annual budget of $6 million and supervises 90 employees. As if that wasn't enough, Holst also directly supervises, coaches and mentors eight managers. She is currently leading an expansion project to include the Central Square Health Center into the division's operations.

Holst, 54, has evolved from a registered nurse to an administrator, and that process has helped her from a clinical perspective. She did not see herself as being a long-term bedside nurse, and when there was an opportunity to advance, she took it while being encouraged by her peers.
"It was an internal desire," she said. "I had good organizational and leadership skills, and it was a matter of connecting the dots. Nursing was not enough of a challenge."

A registered nurse by trade, Holst's career has touched on several different levels of healthcare.
She worked as head nurse at Hutchings Psychiatric Center and was a school nurse at Cleveland Elementary School in the Central Square School District. Holst was also the director for the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention and Services Project for Oswego County at the Oswego County Board of Cooperative Educational Services from 1991-95.

For the past 11 years, she has helped mold OCO's Health Centers into being well-respected primary care centers for the indigent population of Oswego County. "She is constantly and with endless energy working to ensure that all persons within Oswego County have access to quality health care," said Diane Blasczienski, who nominated Holst for "Healthcare Hero" honors.

Among the tougher parts of Holst's job involves recruiting and contracting with physicians. She also undergoes rate negotiations with insurance providers, continually being forced to justify work that physicians are doing. She is also involved in the grant-seeking process, as well as budget development and management. "You have to prioritize without forgetting the people who are out in the field." She said OCO gives her the freedom to "get out and be a part of different agencies."

Holst said she is an effective administrator thanks largely to support from OCO itself. She added that among the challenges inherent with her job is helping employees balance home and work obligations. She said OCO is "generous" in this area. "The staff doesn't realize what they have in terms of flexibility," she said. Her task is to "get the job done without minimizing employees' concerns. It's all about open, honest, ongoing communication."

OCO has its own employee assistance program, which offers workers access to counseling services to help deal with personal issues.

Holst also wants to identify staff members who will fit nicely into future leadership roles.

As far as long-range goals are concerned, Holst wants to see the Central Square Health Center become a reality. In addition, she said the Fulton Health Center features inadequate space and a new facility would allow the agency to meet the health needs of more people.

She also wants to see the entire health division equipped with an electronic medical record system. This measure will help the infrastructure of the system, effectively connecting healthcare providers with medical facilities. This will bypass the need to rely on information supplied by family members in a health crisis situation. "It will lead to less risk and better quality care," she said.

Born and raised in Syracuse, she has been an Oswego County resident for the past 31 years.
Holst, a resident of Bernhards Bay, has been married to her husband Gary for 29 years and has a son, Brian, 25; a stepson, Michael, 39; a stepdaughter, Kim, 37; and is a step-grandmother to 13-, 11-, 6- and 4-year-old children.

She graduated from the Willard State Hospital School of Nursing.
She is chair of the Rural Health Network of Oswego County and vice chair of the Oswego County Health Department Board of Health.

Holst characterizes the state of health care in Oswego County as being of sound quality, however she said "we can improve on working together a bit more, especially with indigents." She criticized what she perceives to be a quick-fix" society that stresses the "drive-thru" health care mentality. "It's happening," she said.

Holst sees herself as a "voracious" life-long learner and reader. Her hobbies include reading, snowshoeing, boating and traveling.

OCO is a not-for-profit agency providing services since 1966. The agency serves over 20,000 people each year through more than 40 programs. OCO provides assistance for the homeless; educational services; family health care; independence for the disabled; meals for the elderly, disabled and youth; safety for the abused; support for youth; and transportation for all. OCO is among the top 10 largest private employers in Oswego County with over 600 employees and 950 volunteers. The agency is funded primarily by federal and state dollars along with fees for service and local support.