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Doug Clark: ‘Hippie chick’ turned ifs into reality of CHAS

She dresses like no CEO I’ve ever met.

Gray hair pulled into a bun. Turquoise sweater, over a periwinkle T-shirt, buttoned only at the top. Jeans rolled up slightly above the ankles. Blue running shoes tied with neon green laces.

Peg Hopkins, 61, could be headed for a home and garden show. Yet here we are, sitting in her third-floor downtown office with comfortable, red leather chairs and a window that looks out onto some of Spokane’s most revered icons, like the Clocktower, the U.S. Pavilion from Expo ’74 and, of course, the ever-popular big red wagon.

Hopkins makes no apologies for her unorthodox style, conceding she’s an “old hippie chick” at heart.

I get that.

Hippie or not, Hopkins is the wicked-smart leader who took the Community Health Association of Spokane (CHAS, for short) from a noble 1994 concept to what it is today: the Inland Northwest’s private, nonprofit health care powerhouse with a $65 million budget, 11 locations and 500 employees.

The surprises continue.

Satisfied with her achievements, Hopkins has decided to do what the best boxers never seem to do: walk away on top.

Her last day is Tuesday.

“It was time to go,” she said with a grin. “I just couldn’t hang on.” Leaders who hang around – “it hurts their company.”

Ah, but what a legacy she leaves.

Last year, CHAS served 55,000 patients. The clinics offer a vast range of services, including dental work, pregnancy and labor care, treatment of broken bones and even psychiatric help.

“Health reform was my dream,” Hopkins said. “I spent my life with the ifs – if everybody could have access to health care. We’re now on to the how.

“We’re a fantastic model.”

Despite all the growth and all the success and all the accolades, CHAS has remained true to the guiding principle that was set down at the very beginning.

All patients – regardless of insurance or financial status – are welcomed and helped. CHAS offers a sliding fee scale for the poor and will help the uninsured get insured.

“It’s hope that we give out to people against all odds,” Hopkins said.

No wonder this woman is a finalist for the Spokane Public Library Foundation’s new Citizen Hall of Fame. Hopkins was nominated in the “Science, Health and Medicine” category.

Talking with Hopkins is like talking to an old friend. You can’t help but feel comfortable and relaxed.

Every now and then, however, you catch a glimpse of the intelligence and inner strength that was needed to solve the thorny problem of how to connect the poor with quality health care.

Flash back to 1994, long before the Affordable Care Act. Hopkins was working for the county, she said, providing “special needs housing.”

She met over coffee with some people who wanted to start a health center. Hopkins laughed. “They had to explain what a health center was.”

The ideals – not for profit, no one refused care – registered deeply with Hopkins. Plus there was a $45,000 grant available.

Hopkins was all in.

True, she had no proper background in health care. Hopkins said her college degree is in social science education.

But Hopkins loved the challenge of a Rubik’s Cube-like puzzle that was the health care system.

Even so, “it seemed solvable,” she said. “I could see how to fix it, how to get there, little by little.”

Hopkins had to “learn the health care business” from every aspect and angle. She laughed. “I had to use my powers for good instead of evil.”

There were some tough early years, naturally.

“Aaron!”

Hopkins yelled the name. An answer came from across the hall at the CHAS administrative offices in the Liberty Building.

A moment later, Aaron Wilson appeared. Wilson will soon replace Hopkins as CEO.

The two talked for minute about those lean years at CHAS.

How lean?

Wilson said he recently went through old files and found the financial figures for 1997. “It was a negative number,” he added with a laugh.

Hopkins met with government officials, too many to even remember. She scratched for every dollar of funding.

There were ups, downs and in-betweens.

But slowly, CHAS took hold, adding clinics and services like emergency dental care.

“I’ve always believed that if you focus on quality, the money will come,” she said proudly. “The best and the brightest work at CHAS. We’re the employer of choice now.”

Employee satisfaction, she added, “is stellar.”

So what now?

Where does a hippie chick ex-CEO who believes that “comedy is the highest art form” go?

There’ll be a road trip, she said. And she might write a book that focuses on leadership and “how to get the best out of your people.”

(Hint: “Believe in them.”)

There’s just one criterion Peg Hopkins insists on.

“Give me another mission,” she said. “I’m a person who’s called to a mission.”

Doug Clark is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or by email at dougc@spokesman.com.