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Undeterred by a bad economy

February 1, 2009
by Brian Albright
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J. Gilbert Sierra focuses on innovation even in tough times

The economic downturn has put increased financial pressures on behavioral healthcare organizations, and many are faced with budget cuts at a time when the demand for services is rapidly increasing. As the new CEO of the Peace River Center (PRC) in Bartow, Florida, J. Gilbert Sierra has his work cut out for him, making sure the organization maintains its service levels while tightening its belt but still pursuing new opportunities.

J. gilbert sierra
J. Gilbert Sierra

“The entire economy is undergoing tremendous difficulties, and we're not excluded from that,” explains Sierra, who became PRC's CEO in September. “But it forces us to adopt a mind-set of innovation. We have to come up with creative solutions to these problems, and I am committed to having a fully engaged workforce.” To that end Sierra has held a series of town-hall style meetings to keep his team informed and seek their input.

Sierra is a numbers man, with a degree in accounting and finance and a master's in health services administration, and he has decades of experience as both a healthcare administrator and consultant. Growing up around the rough neighborhoods of the Bronx in New York City, Sierra saw firsthand how untreated mental illness and addiction ravages a community—and the importance of the safety net supplied by mental health and social service providers.

“I grew up in an area that is very much like the one we provide services for,” Sierra notes. “That was an environment where people faced a lot of obstacles, and facilities like Peace River helped sustain them. What really moves me and motivates me is the development and empowerment of people, and helping them reach their full potential. That's been my passion in all the 20-plus years I've been involved in healthcare.”

This empowerment focus extends not just to clients and patients but also to his staff. Sierra has served as executive director of the Metropolitan Hospital in New York City; COO at Quest, Inc., in Orlando; and a consultant with Spano & Company. In each role, he has strived to help the people around him reach their goals, whether they were CEO clients needing help managing painful reorganizations or receptionists and clerks who, with his encouragement, became nurse practitioners or healthcare executives.

At PRC, a private, nonprofit mental health organization serving 4,000 clients in three counties, Sierra and his team are focused on expanding services. Their priority list includes pursuing funding for a stand-alone psychiatric hospital, adding programs for returning veterans in conjunction with local VA hospitals, and fostering partnerships with domestic violence programs.

“We don't want to get so focused on budget cuts that we aren't able to take our behavioral health services to the next level,” Sierra explains. “We are committed to having the array of services needed for a successful mental health program, and to increase access to those services. Peace River has been a cutting-edge organization for 60 years, and we are positioning ourselves to continue that innovation.”

Brian Albright is a freelance writer. Behavioral Healthcare 2009 February;29(2):37