New Mercy CEO embraces a community in need of services
Dale Johns was serving as the CEO for the largest community hospital in Northeastern Pennsylvania when he first heard about the city of Merced, about a year ago.
Johns was looking for a new opportunity, somewhat spiritual in nature, after leading Wilkes-Barre General throughout the COVID pandemic, and working to improve the hospital’s scores in quality and performance.
A former associate who was working in Merced recommended Dignity Health — Mercy Medical Center where a nationwide search was being conducted for the hospital’s next president and CEO.
Johns liked the idea of working for a faith-based, not-for-profit company, with values aligned to his own, in a community that would be a nice fit for him and his family, including children in school.
Soon he was interviewing for the position, and impressing Dignity executives with his “sense of prioritizing the needs of the community, coupled with more than 30 years of leadership experience in health care.”
It turns out, Johns got the job he wanted. He relocated his family to a home in Merced and started work at the end of September.
Six months later, during an interview with the Times, the new CEO says he’s settling into a wonderfully diverse community that’s in need of more access to health care, but that’s also on the verge of some long-awaited growth.
“One of my goals being here is to make sure people don’t have to leave our community to get health care,” he says. “We don’t have enough doctors here. We don’t have enough entry points for people to go and get all their needs met from a health care perspective. So people use the ER to meet those needs, but there’s a lot of other avenues we can create to help people.”
Johns admits Merced County has some challenging demographics. More than 40 percent of Mercy patients are on Medicaid, and another 43 percent are on Medicare. There’s a relatively few amount of commercial payers in the mix. Meanwhile, according to data Johns points out, health care in California remains a tough business, especially in rural areas. From 2019 to 2021, labor expense in the industry rose 16 percent, medical supply expenses jumped 19 percent and pharmaceutical costs surged 41 percent — all while hospital reimbursement went up zero.
“We try to meet the needs of the community, and that’s not always easy,” he says. “We are fortunate to be part of a larger health system — CommonSpirit Health — so they can help us when we have tough times.”
Mercy Medical Center offers many services, including critical care services, cardiac services, a center for diabetes, a birth center and a family clinic center. However, this region does not have a trauma center, nor a burn center. Transplants and open heart surgery are not available at Mercy.
Johns says future plans include working on becoming a STEMI center with increased cardiac capabilities, as well as growing partnerships with Merced College and UC Merced to build up health care in the region.
“I love what Chancellor Munoz is doing up there, and his vision of what Merced can be. I truly feel like Merced is on a tipping point. We are right there — so close to getting over that hump. We are at the top of the hill, and we just need a little push over the top, and we are going to bring these businesses in, and the industries, and the better paying jobs, and the opportunities for young people to stay in the community and make decent money.”
Johns says he sees his job, and the hospital’s role, as part of a community-wide effort to build up the Merced area.
“We need to be the community hospital that the community needs,” he says. “We need to do that by providing the highest level of quality patient experience and safety — both for our patients and our team. This needs to be a place where people want to work, where people want to come for their care, and where people feel comfortable.”
Journey To Merced
Johns grew up in a small, southern Utah town known as Hurricane, the “Gateway to Zion National Park.” It’s not unlike some of the towns here in the Central Valley. He worked on farms and ranches in his early years, and dreamed of going to medical school at some point. Instead, he joined the U.S. Army Reserves while in high school and ended up serving for eight years, including participation in operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
He also became an X-ray Technician, and after his military service, he started working in hospitals. While in radiology for a few years, Johns realized he would rather pursue management and administration than an extended stay in medical school. It turns out he was pretty good in a leadership role.
He worked his way up from being a Radiology Team Coordinator to a Chief Executive Officer at hospitals in Utah (Salt Lake Regional Medial Center), Florida (Town and Country Hospital) and Pennsylvania (Wilkes-Barre General Hospital).
At Wilkes-Barre, before coming to Merced, Johns had oversight of a 412-bed acute care community hospital, including a freestanding behavioral health facility, and an employed physician group of 200 providers across 70 community clinics.
The CEO says he was moved by the Mission Statement of the CommonSpirit Health network that Mercy Medical Center Merced is a part of: “We make the healing presence of God known in our world by improving the health of the people we serve, especially those who are vulnerable, while we advance social justice for all.”
“That’s a bold statement,” says Johns. “My religion is important to me, and to hear them putting that in front of everything else is just great.”
The CEO also notes that once every morning, and once in the evening, a prayer is said over the intercom at Mercy Hospital, and “that’s pretty cool.”
Johns is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and his family has already been volunteering as church members in the community, including helping out residents in Planada during the recent floods.
Johns met his wife, Jennifer, at a hospital while he was still an X-ray tech. She was an EMT, and their paths would cross often when Johns would go to the Emergency Room. They now have three children: a 19-year-old daughter who is finishing up nursing school in Pennsylvania, a 17-year-old son who attends El Capitan High School, and a fifth-grader at a local elementary school.
Upon moving here, Johns says he was pleasantly surprised to learn his family had extended roots in the Central Valley, particularly in the Turlock area, where relatives have lived.
“The community has opened up its arms and welcomed us here,” Johns says. “This is a place I can see myself staying in for a long time. Even my oldest daughter, when she finishes training, she wants to come back here and become a nurse.”
“I love it here,” he adds. “I think if more people could see what a wonderful community this is, more people would stay.”