Ninety-two black and white portraits dating back to 1930 line the hallways at THA’s Austin headquarters, prominently displaying world-class hospital leaders who have spoken for the hospital industry as the organization’s board chairs. In January, THA will hang its 93rd portrait, this one featuring Erin Asprec, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Memorial Hermann Health System. It’s a striking representation of the progress achieved when legacies are built upon one another.
After nearly 100 years since THA was founded, Asprec will be the 12th woman to hold the title of board chair.
Fortunately, Asprec thrives in environments marked with uncertainty and challenges.
“I’ve been very fortunate since early in my career to be in roles that involved building something from scratch and creating change by which to improve the available programs and services for patients,” Asprec said. “It’s what I gravitate toward.”
On Jan. 10, when the opening gavel falls to mark the new 140-day legislative session, Texas hospitals will need leaders like Asprec at the forefront of the uphill battle to represent hospitals’ needs.
A Commitment to Accessible Health Care
First-hand experience as a patient informed Asprec’s career choice. Born with a rare congenital heart condition called Tetralogy of Fallot, Asprec observed the patient care experience from years spent in doctor’s offices and hospital beds. She decided that to create systemic change, she would pursue a career in health care administration.
“If it weren’t for the physicians, clinicians, facilities and care that I was very fortunate to have access to, I probably would not be here today,” Asprec said. “Because of that experience so early in life, I am very passionate about ensuring that everyone has access to high-quality health care.”
Few factors impact the well-being of a state’s citizens as much as health care access. Despite Texas’ renowned hospitals and health systems, many Texans continue to struggle accessing health care. Despite having the highest percentage of uninsured among its population, Texas remains one of 12 states in the U.S. that still has not expanded Medicaid coverage for its estimated 1.2 million uninsured residents.
Asprec’s career trajectory mirrors her deep commitment to making health care accessible for patients. Her health care administration career spans nearly 25 years. In that time, she has collaborated with leadership teams to build and renovate hospitals, innovated processes to be more consumer-centric and established differentiated programs and services for the community. Her ability to innovate and think outside of the box will be crucial as THA prepares to work with the Texas Legislature to address the most pressing pandemic-influenced health care issues.
“We’ll need to be aggressive during the 2023 legislative session, and I think Erin’s unique insight of THA’s current advocacy priorities will make her an effective board chair,” said John Hawkins, president/CEO of THA. “I recall early on in the pandemic, Erin would participate on THA’s weekly pandemic calls and identified the issues around workforce inflation and shortages and was instrumental in the formation of THA’s Workforce Task Force, which she chaired.”
A Passion for Building
Asprec assumed her current role as executive vice president and chief operating officer of Memorial Hermann Health System in January 2020, two months before a global pandemic upended the health care industry. In this role, Asprec oversees the strategic, operational and financial management of all Memorial Hermann operations, which includes 17 hospitals and more than 260 care delivery sites across Southeast Texas.
She began her career at Memorial Hermann in 2002 and has built upon each opportunity into increasingly more significant roles within the system. For the past 20 years, Asprec has held integral roles at Memorial Hermann, including key leadership positions—most recently as chief of acute care services and chief transformation officer.
Unsurprisingly, the professional accomplishments that bring her the most satisfaction involve building something new.
In 2004, Asprec was CEO of Memorial Hermann Heart & Vascular Institute-Texas Medical Center. At the time, Memorial Hermann’s Heart & Vascular Institute was under the shadow of two well-regarded, strong cardiology competitors in the Greater Houston market.
In four years, Asprec’s work at the Memorial Hermann Heart & Vascular Institute culminated in the grand opening of a new 230,000 square-foot, eight-story, 147-bed facility that has grown to become one of the country’s top heart and vascular programs.
“That was a very special moment for me because of my heart condition,” Asprec said. “I was proud of the partnerships we formed with physicians to build a program that was top in the country and eventually became a successful, competitive program against two other strong, established competitors.”
For Asprec, building isn’t limited to shiny new hospitals — it also includes re-building processes and service lines to suit the community’s needs.
In 2017, Houston faced the worst oil downturn since the 1980s, and its effects rippled into every industry, even health care. As a result, Houston health systems like Memorial Hermann faced financial uncertainty. At the time, Asprec was the chief transformation officer, and it was clear that, to stay financially solvent, Memorial Hermann needed to transform health care delivery.
Like a good Houstonian, Asprec looked for ways to turn a bust into a boom. She established the health system’s Transformation Office and worked with physicians, clinicians and executives across the system to re-design the health care experience to maximize engagement while reducing waste. As a result, Memorial Hermann decreased its costs and saved a billion dollars over five years.
“It was rewarding not only because it put us back on track in terms of financial stability, but also helped our community,” said Asprec. “It truly improved the care we provide.”
Investing in Others
Asprec isn’t just committed to building up hospitals and service lines. She also wants to build a positive corporate culture, particularly for women who still struggle securing a seat at the top.
A 2021 JAMA Network Open study reviewed more than 3,900 health care executives and 3,400 board members across 161 hospitals. The results found that only 15.3% of health system CEOs are women. However, the presence of female CEOs positively influenced gender diversity across the organizational leadership teams.
Asprec, who has been recognized by the Houston Business Journal as one of Houston’s “Women Who Mean Business” and selected among the “Most Powerful and Influential Women in Texas” by the National Diversity Council, wanted to help women navigate their careers. In 2015, she helped spearhead the formation of Women Leaders of Memorial Hermann.
When senior leadership members at Memorial Hermann received feedback from female leaders within the organization that they felt it was difficult to navigate their careers at Memorial Hermann, they knew that feedback must be acted upon.
“We did some research and found that there aren’t many health care organizations that have a leadership group for women,” said Asprec. “So, we looked externally at the programs from other industries like oil and gas or consulting, and we took some of those best practices to found Women Leaders of Memorial Hermann.”
Guided by four tenets: inspiration, mentoring, community service and education, Women Leaders of Memorial Hermann is on a mission to build a culture of excellence among women leaders within Memorial Hermann that has far-reaching, measurable impact.
The program now has over 800 women leaders who circulate through the program. Every year, Women Leaders of Memorial Hermann sponsors two networking events and gives back to the Houston community through partnerships with United Way and Dress for Success, among others.
Asprec says she and the steering committee often field inquiries about Women Leaders of Memorial Hermann and “happily share information” about the program model to help everyone incorporate similar programs in their organizations.
“Erin was instrumental in founding Women Leaders of Memorial Hermann and continues to be a driving force for the program today,” said Teal Holden, senior vice president of Ambulatory Services and Post-Acute Care at Memorial Hermann. “Thanks to her guidance and ongoing dedication, we have proudly supported hundreds of women in their careers, lifting many into leadership roles. Erin’s commitment to mentorship is unmatched, and I can personally say many women within our organization look up to Erin as they work to grow in their respective careers.”
Being the Change
While everyone would like to put the pandemic in the rearview mirror, its effects are still deeply felt by the hospital industry, left with pervasive workforce shortages and financial instability.
“When I hear people say they are tired of COVID, I want to say, ‘Yeah, no one wants the pandemic to be over more than hospitals,’” Asprec joked. “This misperception that hospitals were financially advantaged due to the pandemic just hurts my soul.”
A self-proclaimed “glass half-full person,” Asprec feels confident that hospitals showed their value during the pandemic, ensuring that the Texas economy could get back on track.
In May 2021, the biennial revenue estimate was increased by $1.67 billion, moving the state from a negative to a positive balance. Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar credited the improvement to the state’s successful mass COVID-19 vaccination efforts. In the spring of 2021, there were over 70 large vaccine hubs in Texas administering the COVID-19 vaccine. Thirty-six of those hubs were maintained by hospitals and health systems like Memorial Hermann, which hosted a vaccine hub at NRG park in Houston.
“There is an opportunity here heading into a legislative year with a surplus,” Asprec said. “It’s clearly upon us to be aggressive in advocating for our greatest needs, which right now include opening the workforce pipeline, increased investment in behavioral health, stability for trauma care systems and, as always, pushing for Medicaid expansion in a way that is right for Texas.”
While there is a budget surplus heading into the legislative session, the financial outlook for Texas hospitals is far from ideal. In December 2022, THA released a report compiled by Kaufmann Hall that underscored the existential financial and operational threats Texas hospitals continue to face two and a half years after the beginning of the pandemic. Key findings from the report show that nearly one out of every 10 Texas hospitals is at risk of closure, twice as many as before the pandemic. The report also found that Texas hospital expenses are up 20% over pre-pandemic levels, primarily due to labor, supply and drug increases.
It’s a formidable challenge, but not beyond Texas hospitals’ capability. Having witnessed Texas hospitals’ collective teamwork to get through the worst of the pandemic, Asprec knows hospitals can work together to get the critical help they need from the legislature.
“There was never a question of if we would help each other,” Asprec said. “And technically we are competitors, but it didn’t matter. In Houston, all the hospitals met, planned and coordinated our response on how to take care of the community together. I will never forget that Texas hospitals and health systems literally banded together and acted as one team.”
No matter the issue, health care access, corporate culture or organizational alignment, Asprec is compelled by a strong sense of personal responsibility. This sense of duty extends to ensuring hospitals’ needs are well-represented to the 88th Texas Legislature.
“Growing up, it was instilled in me that whenever you see a situation you don’t like or feel should be improved, it is your responsibility to do something about it,” Asprec said. “I deem it my and my colleagues’ responsibility to advocate for our industry. If we are not there advocating and pushing for Texas hospitals’ stability and sustainability, then who will?”