Debra Johnson vividly recalls the day she met her future husband, Mario Gutierrez. She was a young physician interviewing for a position in an Indian health clinic in Mendocino County, and he was working for the California Rural Indian Health Board. It was 1982.
“I was invited to go to a community meeting, and there were several different tribes represented. The clinic was in trouble,” she said. “Mario was the only person I knew, and he signaled me to sit next to him. The meeting was getting more rancorous, more heated. People were calling people out. I sincerely thought it was going to come to blows in the parking lot. He turned to me and said, ‘I think I’ve had enough.’ And he went to the podium and said the tribes were going to have to come together and see this as a common good, and that the government was trying to keep them apart so they would remain as an underclass. After 30 minutes, he had them setting up a new board of directors and making a mission statement. I was just astounded. He could talk to a room full of people and make everyone feel important — and steer the ship in the direction it was meant to go. I thought, ‘This is a man I really need to get to know.'”
Gutierrez, a trailblazer who devoted his career to improving the health of people marginalized by disparities in California’s health care system, died on August 16 in Sacramento after complications from surgery. He was 68. Renowned in California as a pioneer in bringing health care to the rural poor, he gained national recognition for supporting telehealth programs to reach that goal.
For the past six years, Gutierrez was executive director of the Center for Connected Health Policy (CCHP), a program of the Public Health Institute, and a leader in the developing field of telemedicine. He was instrumental in the passage of California’s Telehealth Advancement Act of 2011. The following year, Gutierrez helped CCHP win a contract from the US Health Resources and Services Administration to serve as the federally designated National Telehealth Policy Resource Center. He also worked on a groundbreaking two-year pilot project for CCHP that linked 43 safety-net clinics across California with medical specialists at the five University of California medical schools. Before joining CCHP in 2010, Gutierrez served as director of strategic programs and director of rural health strategies at The California Endowment, a longtime supporter of telehealth.
Gutierrez saw telemedicine as “a way to enfranchise rural Americans and those with chronic conditions for whom access to care was difficult and costly. . . . He saw telemedicine as the great equalizer.”
Throughout his career, Gutierrez was heralded for bringing disparate communities together for a common purpose. “He was always really interested in helping those people who didn’t have a voice,” Johnson said. “Native Americans. AIDS patients when they were ostracized. Agricultural workers. He worked with communities of poverty that were rich in culture and banded together to improve public health through education and public development.”
Gutierrez saw telemedicine as a “way to enfranchise rural Americans and those with chronic conditions for whom access to care was difficult and costly,” she said. “He really thought that was the wave of the future for the poor. He saw telemedicine as the great equalizer.”
He was the first Latino to receive the prestigious Terrance Keenan National Leadership Award in Health Philanthropy in 2007, and he served on multiple health care boards and advisory panels.
Clinics Endure and Thrive
Longtime friend Jim Crouch, who succeeded Gutierrez as executive director of the California Rural Indian Health Board in 1987, said Gutierrez’s efforts were always based in “community organizing, facilitating, very much a community-focused public health approach to wellness — making things happen by making state law and policy.” He said Gutierrez’s lasting contribution was the “permanence of the structure” of the Indian Health Board, including clinics “from Bishop to Crescent City,” first created in the 1970s. “He created the structure, providing technical assistance, policy development, and advocacy,” Crouch said, enabling the clinics to endure and thrive.
Richard Figueroa, director of prevention for The California Endowment, said Gutierrez “lived the work.” He had a “real knack for connecting people who ordinarily wouldn’t connect — communities, funding sources — to collaboratively work on issues facing agricultural and rural communities,” Figueroa said. “He would always make the connections. It’s such a loss.”
When Gutierrez worked at the Sierra Health Foundation with Chet Hewitt, now its CEO, Gutierrez “was the ultimate bridge-builder, bringing together people with different perspectives and backgrounds without compromising populations that are too often marginalized,” Hewitt said. “He had a very rich history and extraordinary accomplishments in rural health, and was one of the first to focus on health in the Central and San Joaquin Valleys.”
Dr. Tom Nesbitt, associate vice-chancellor for Strategic Technologies and Alliances at UC Davis Health, shared Gutierrez’s interest in health disparities and telemedicine’s potential to ease them. “It was really never about the technology for Mario,” he said. “It was about the ability of technology to address health disparities — trying to remove barriers, reduce injustice and disparities, bring people together to create policy. He made everyone feel valuable — people in government, rural health, Native Americans, farmworker organizations. Everybody knew and trusted him as someone who was working for their benefit rather than his own.”
Moving Expertise Where It’s Needed
Nesbitt worked with Gutierrez in securing Sierra Health Foundation funding for telemedicine programs in the early 1990s. “It was slow going, difficult to get traction,” he recalls. “Now, as people talk about problems with access and geographic health care disparities, telemedicine is seen as a tool to move expertise where it’s needed.”
Gutierrez was a key participant in regular meetings of the 14 national and regional telehealth resource centers in the National Consortium of Telehealth Resource Centers. Deborah Peters, co-program director of the Pacific Basin Telehealth Resource Center, based at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, said Gutierrez was adept at “smoothing out the edges, without acrimony” to form an umbrella organization for the centers, which are in various stages of telehealth development. “Our situation is very different from California, or the Northwest,” she said, “with different infrastructure, varying levels of adoption [of telemedicine]. He had a vision for us. I can’t imagine what it will be like without him at our next meeting in October.”
The son of Cuban immigrants, Gutierrez grew up in Miami. He earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Miami and a master’s in public health at UC Berkeley. His Cuban roots were strong, and he made frequent trips to Cuba with his wife, a plastic surgeon, as she performed reconstructive surgeries for international medical missions in developing countries. They developed programs to teach Cuban physicians new techniques. During his training, he took classmates to Cuba, gravitating to the health needs of residents, becoming close friends with the director of a pediatric hospital. Johnson said he was “perfectly bilingual” and enjoyed sharing his culture with family, friends, and colleagues.
“I was a great fan of his paella,” said Hewitt. “He was truly a Renaissance man, loved art, loved service, and had a deep devotion to the poor and disadvantaged. He lived a full life, cut too short, but his passion, his work left benefits for so many communities.”
In addition to his wife, Debra Johnson, Gutierrez is survived by their two children, Gabi and Pablo, and his brother, John Gutierrez.
Sigrid Bathen is a Sacramento-based journalist whose award-winning health care coverage has appeared in many publications. She was a Sacramento Bee reporter for 13 years; a senior editor at the California Journal, a magazine about state government and politics; and communications director for three state agencies. She has been an adjunct professor of journalism and communications at California State University, Sacramento, since 1988. She can be reached at email@example.com.