Upon graduating from the University of Oklahoma, Nico Gomez might have appeared to be headed for a career reporting on the coming changes to the healthcare system in Oklahoma, as opposed to heading the state Medicaid agency. After all, a degree in journalism usually leaves one on the outside looking in when it comes to government operations.
However, after finding a passion for health care, Gomez had a meteoric rise through various governmental positions, culminating in an appointment as CEO of the Oklahoma Health Care Authority (OHCA) in February 2013.
“I didn’t graduate wanting to be a government employee – it was simply a matter of opportunity,” says Gomez.
He began his public service career as spokesperson for the Oklahoma Department of Transportation in 1995. In 2000, he joined OHCA as public information officer. Five years later, he was appointed by the Speaker of the House of Representatives to serve on a state Medicaid reform task force. In 2008, he was named deputy CEO for OHCA. In the deputy role, Gomez was responsible for legislative communication at the state and congressional level as well as managing the governmental relations of several units.
“When the job opened up at OHCA, I had no idea what it was, but I know I wanted to be in a leadership role in the community,” says Gomez. He had also added a master’s degree in business administration with an emphasis in health care administration to his resume.
Still, Gomez says that he found health care “very different,” but also discovered a rewarding culture of employees. “We all kind of wake up wanting to see if we can find a way to make a difference,” he recalls. “I wanted my life to mean something.”
Gomez says he doesn’t have to look far for people whose lives have been improved because of access to health care – from the family that came up to thank him at the Oklahoma State Fair to the young man in Ardmore who survived an accident but is on a ventilator.
“His mother won’t give up, and she wants to see him off the ventilator, and so do I,” he says.
Staying in touch with clients and following their progress has been Gomez’s calling card, and it’s been rewarding, he says. But he also recognizes that OHCA has a lot of work to do. “We have poor healthcare outcomes here, and half the children in the state are in the program,” he notes.
Although he says he was only part of the effort, Gomez was proud to see Insure Oklahoma extended in 2013. The subsidy program helps many Oklahomans afford health care they might not otherwise be able to afford. Being able to help both employees and numerous others in need in the wake of the tornadoes in Moore was also important to Gomez in 2013.
However, Gomez says that success in OHCA means serving fewer – not more – Oklahomans.
“I would like to see fewer people in the program – not because of some Draconian cuts, but rather because people have higher incomes and don’t need it,” Gomez says. For those who remain in need, he says he would like to focus on improving Oklahoma’s teen pregnancy rate, its youth tobacco use rate, and help improve the lives of seniors.
“I’d like to see better healthcare outcomes,” Gomez says.