Jean-Marc Villain, system director of supplier inclusion and community engagement at Ochsner Health, speaks to a group of local diverse suppliers at Vizient's Gulf South Community Contracting event that took place June 13 in New Orleans. "The outcome we want to achieve," he said, "is procurement for purpose."
By Erin Cristales, Vizient
Louisianans know the statistics all too well.
For more than a decade, the Pelican State has landed at or close to the bottom of national health rankings due to high rates of cardiovascular and cancer deaths, obesity, low birth weight, and chronic conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure and COPD.
It's a challenge that Ochsner Health — Louisiana's leading nonprofit, academic health system that is regularly named among the best healthcare organizations in the nation by entities ranging from U.S. News & World Report to Healthgrades — is looking to tackle by partnering with local organizations to realize a healthier, and more equitable, state. But like a bevy of other providers across the U.S., it faces a complex conundrum: What good is great care to neighborhoods where the social determinants of health are stacked against them?
"Favorable health outcomes don't just depend on access to and quality of care," said Jean-Marc Villain, Ochsner's system director of supplier inclusion and community engagement, whose efforts to promote diversity in business contributed to the health system being named the 2023 Ernest N. Morial Corporation of the Year. "What we've found through our community health and needs assessments is that economic hardship is one of the most important drivers of health inequities. Economic development depends on job creation and community wealth building — and we need the right partners to make that happen."
That's why Ochsner is the launch partner of Vizient's Gulf South Community Contracting cohort — a collaboration the New Orleans-based health system is adding to a number of strategies designed to meet its "Healthy State" initiative, which aims to improve the health and wellness of individuals and families in Louisiana by partnering with local government, community and healthcare organizations. The multifaceted Healthy State team brings resources to underserved communities; seeks to better understand the impact of health and social conditions; utilizes data, technology and innovation to improve outcomes; and invests in Louisiana's economic growth and workforce.
Vizient Community Contracting complements those goals by encouraging healthcare systems and other purchasing organizations — such as universities, corporations and nonprofits — to invest in the regional economy by directing their spend to local diverse suppliers who in turn hire from the community.
After all, health often comes down to numbers — but it's not always the ones we immediately think of that are most crucial. Yes, the figures on the scale and the glucometer and the blood pressure monitor matter. But effective management of those metrics is inextricably tied to how many people can obtain good jobs, livable wages, affordable and sustained housing, and health insurance.
"It's really difficult to focus on eating healthy if you can't pay for food, and it's hard to afford a doctor's visit when you don't have insurance," said Shaleta Dunn, Vizient vice president of supplier diversity and social investment impact. "Through Community Contracting, we want to build and support healthier communities by having organizations use their purchasing power with local diverse suppliers to provide sustainable financial stability and impact in their own backyards. It's about buy local, invest local, support local."
Harnessing the potential of local diverse suppliers
"This is a gamechanger."
It isn't the first time the word has been spoken at the Gulf South Community Contracting event, where Louisiana- and Mississippi-based suppliers and providers came together in New Orleans on June 13 to learn more about Vizient's cutting-edge cohorts.
But really, says Phala Mire, president and CEO of the Women's Business Enterprise Council South, there's hardly a descriptor more fitting for a program that could at long last harness the potential of local vendors to serve hospitals across the globe — and, by extension, improve the financial and physical outcomes of their hometown patients.
"The Gulf Coast is a small market, and even though our ecosystem is growing exponentially, there tend to be fewer opportunities for local businesses," Mire said. "We want to make sure we're connecting with strategies like Community Contracting that localize and magnify opportunities for diverse suppliers. This is a no-brainer — we want to push as many suppliers as we can to the program."
Shaleta Dunn, Vizient vice president of supplier diversity and social investment impact, speaks to suppliers at the Gulf South Community Contracting event in June. The Gulf South is one of five cohorts that Dunn and her team have helped to launch over the past year, with a goal of eventually expanding to 50 cities across the U.S. "Ochsner initiated the Gulf South cohort," she said, "and we're looking for other like-minded providers to join."
Local suppliers, advocacy and certification organizations, and community-based partners streamed into the event to hear about the Community Contracting framework, including the benefits of being a contracted supplier with access to the thousands of health systems that are part of Vizient's national portfolio. The goal of the Community Contracting team in year one of the Gulf South cohort is to add a minimum of 40 diverse suppliers across established categories that support the supply chain of the participating purchasing organizations to shift their spend locally.
Education also is a critical piece of the mission, with Community Contracting playing a key role in teaching local diverse suppliers how to grow their businesses. Part of that involves embedding Community Contracting program managers in the geographic areas they serve to achieve a full understanding of the unique strengths and challenges found within each region.
"This program is more than just a contracting strategy," said Starr Franklin, Vizient manager of contract and program services. "We're being very intentional in how we partner with healthcare and purchasing organizations and diverse suppliers to create real change in areas like the Gulf South."
That's particularly important as nearly two decades later, the region is still attempting to fully recover from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which shuttered businesses, destroyed homes and scattered residents. Add to that a workforce leveled by COVID-19, and the challenges for diverse and small businesses — and the neighborhoods they call home — are considerable.
But for longtime resident and local entrepreneur Teresa Lawrence, there's no such thing as a lost cause, especially when healthcare heavyweights like Vizient and Ochsner extend a helping hand. Lawrence moved to New Orleans from Cuba as a teenager in 1973, and in 1988, she and her husband David assumed the reins of Delta Personnel following her father-in-law's Parkinson's diagnosis. The business first opened its doors in 1968 after the elder Lawrence — a Brooklyn native — fell hard for the Big Easy and decided to lay down roots.
His daughter-in-law, as it turned out, felt the same. Warmth, acceptance and diversity are all part of the Gulf South's DNA, Lawrence says. Now it's time to ensure everything from education to economic development are just as deeply imprinted.
"The question becomes how do we get our communities, and especially our minority businesses, to thrive again through the opportunities we create?" she said. "You do it by having powerhouses like Ochsner and Vizient lean in and say, 'Let's see what we can do together.'"
Local diverse suppliers like Tina Balthazar (center), president and owner of New Orleans-based Balthazar Electriks, attended the Gulf South event to hear more about the avenues for growth provided by Vizient's Community Contracting program. "We've been in business here for 29 years," she said. "We're looking to expand opportunities for our business while staying part of the community and keeping our jobs in this community."
'An ideal play' for purchasing organizations
Pictured is Régine Villain, chief supply chain and support services officer at Ochsner Health. At the Gulf South event, she and her Ochsner colleagues Mark French, chief operating officer, supply chain and support services; René Gurdián, assistant vice president, supply chain finance and strategy; and Howard Terrell, assistant vice president, encouraged other purchasing organizations to invest in the local community through strategies like Community Contracting.
In an adjacent conference room, Régine Villain, Ochsner's chief supply chain and support services officer, is making a similar point to local providers.
If a hospital's superpower is putting patients first and providing access to high-quality care then consider what's possible, she urged, when you combine those powers through Community Contracting.
"Many health systems may have prosperous supplier diversity programs, but the idea is to join forces and create a more extensive network for local diverse suppliers," she said. "It's about helping providers understand that if they are working with suppliers who are great at meeting the needs of their patients, think about how much those suppliers can scale if they have access to — and investment from — an entire cohort of hospitals."
Those increased economic opportunities for under-resourced communities could at least partially address trends noted by Vizient company Sg2's recent Impact of Change Forecast, which shows that case mix index — a measure reflecting the diversity, complexity and severity of patient illnesses — is up 5% since 2019 and average length of stay for patients admitted to a hospital has risen 10%. The Forecast also projects a rise in patient acuity over the next decade, which will strain capacity across sites of care.
Add to that the risk management payoff inherent in contracting with regional suppliers, Régine said, and you're left with a quintessential lightbulb moment for healthcare providers.
"One of the lessons we learned during the pandemic is that a lot of the things we needed access to were close to home but those suppliers did not have enough capacity to support us," she said. "If you now intentionally try to develop local suppliers so that they can grow and be part of that circular economy — that's an ideal play."
What's also ideal is being part of what feels like inevitable and positive, change. In their respective roles, Régine, Jean-Marc and their teams are laser-focused on meeting Ochsner's Healthy State goal — and Vizient's Gulf South cohort presents as a win-win with the potential to reverberate throughout the region.
"We're excited to partner with suppliers and organizations," Jean-Marc said, "that are ready to join us in our quest to make Louisiana a healthier state."
Community Contracting offers providers and suppliers a pathway to strengthen both the physical and socioeconomic health of their entire region. Want to know if Community Contracting is right for your business? Watch our informational video or email firstname.lastname@example.org.