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Jennifer Heller appointed new interim CEO, as IFHS board continues its search for permanent director

Jennifer Heller 2019.jpeg
Courtesy of Jennifer Heller
Jennifer Heller is a certified nurse midwife. She’s been working in healthcare for more than two decades and has been employed at IFHS as a nurse midwife and quality improvement coordinator since 2019.

Unalaska’s Iliuliuk Family and Health Services clinic has a new interim chief operator.

Jennifer Heller is a certified nurse midwife. She’s been working in healthcare for more than two decades and has been employed at IFHS as a nurse midwife and quality improvement coordinator since 2019.

Now, she’s the second interim CEO the island’s clinic has hired since December.

Heller stepped into the role last week following the departure of the previous interim director, Will Rodgers, who resigned after roughly three months on the job.

Heller said she’s filling in as the board looks for someone more permanent.

“They’re in the search for a permanent CEO, but concurrently, they're looking for a different interim,” Heller said. “So to bridge that gap between when they find an interim CEO and when Will left, I was the person that had been working most closely with Will, and because I was part time before, I actually could flex up and do that.”

The clinic’s board of directors appointed Heller to the fill-in position at its meeting Thursday. Prior to Rodger’s departure, Heller also worked as the director of operations and worked alongside him as he transitioned out.

Heller said board members are working to fill the job as soon as possible. She said Rodgers is also reaching out to personal connections he’s made in the field to help with the search. In the meantime, she’s hoping to provide some stability for staff.

“One of the things that I personally think is really important — just kind of encompasses what I do — is I make it possible for the clinical staff to do their job efficiently and easily and unencumbered by structural problems,” she said.

IFHS is a unique clinic. It’s a federally-qualified community health center, which means it's funded by the federal government to provide care in the underserved area. But providers serve the surging populations of seasonal fishing industry workers as well as locals. That total number ranges from about 4,500 people to nearly 10,000 during peak fishing seasons. Providers have to be available around the clock to care for those people, as the nearest hospital is about 800 air miles away in Anchorage.

With staffing shortages fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic and administrative instability on top of that, Heller said the CEO’s role can be a tough one to manage and historically, it’s been a challenge to fill.

But with the busy winter fishing season wrapping up locally and a few temporary providers lined up for the summer, Heller said the clinic is beginning to catch up.

“It's been a tough winter staffing-wise particularly,” Heller said. “And when we're short staffed, those of us that are here get a little strained, but I feel like we’re pulling together as a team really well. It's one of the things I love about working here.”

Heller has experience with administrative duties and also worked alongside former clinic director Melanee Tiura. While she said she didn’t necessarily plan to end up in healthcare administration, she’s motivated by her love for the community and respect for her fellow staff members.

She said a quote from the tennis player Arthur Ashe has been inspiring her work lately. The quote is “Start where you are, use what you have, and do what you can.”

“I feel like that's a really great motto for what I'm doing right now: here I am. This is the need that's been presented to me. I'm certainly not going to be perfect, but I'll do what I can,” she said.

For now, Heller said she’ll still do about one day of clinical work a week and the rest of her time will be focused on her work as interim director.

Former director Tiura has also stepped up to help as the clinic’s chief financial operator during the transition, according to Heller. She resigned as CEO in early December, taking a position with Providence Medical Center in Valdez.

Heller said it’ll take time to find the right person to take the helm of the island’s clinic, but she’s thankful for the volunteer board members, who she said are working hard to find a qualified candidate.

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