Metro Weekly

Healthy Outlook: Ryan Moran on What’s Next for Whitman-Walker Health System

For Ryan Moran, Whitman-Walker Health System's newest CEO, the fight for health care access is a personal one

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Ryan Moran — Photo: Jay Lautner, Whitman-Walker

“My entire personal background and professional tenure has been working on creating equitable access to health care services,” says Ryan Moran. “That’s important to start with, because it’s a mission that’s deeply personal, based on my own lived experiences growing up in rural America.”

Moran is the new Chief Executive Officer of the Whitman-Walker Health System. “I got into the health care space because I saw, from a personal experience my family went through, the struggles with the inability to access health care. So that was really what accelerated my interest in health care policy, and the industry at large, and has been the driver of my own life experiences.”

Moran credits his grandfather, whom he never met, with championing the values of hard work, dedication, and education as ways to better one’s life. “He was a coal miner who died of black lung disease before I was even born. But even though I never met him, he instilled this generational promise in our family. He really believed that education was the only ticket out of the mines for his children and his grandchildren.”

Moran, 30, says that growing up in a relatively poor region of the country has informed his feelings about the importance of being able to access various services, including health care, housing and transportation, and allows him to empathize with some of the patients that seek health care or support services through Whitman-Walker.

“I grew up in a place that was very much written by poverty,” he says. “I think of my experiences being raised in public schools in West Virginia. There was one central high school for the entire county, which is very geographically spread out, and required folks to travel great distances on bus or other modes of transportation. For us, it was more than a 40-minute ride to school.

“During my senior year, our school was taken over by the state because of its poor outcomes for students. The state office will do that in order to try to turn a school system around. There were financial issues, but there were also issues related to the poor academic performance of students, and the quality of education people were receiving in my hometown. My school, at the time, ranked near the bottom of the list on a number of different assessments that ranked high schools within West Virginia. Now, I’m grateful for the education I received, but it’s not one of the best places for public education in the country.”

After moving to Baltimore to work for MedStar Health, Moran noticed that the systemic problems and structures that make it harder for Baltimore residents to access needed services were similar to those that perpetuate poverty in his home states.

“Trying to provide services, most of the time in Baltimore City, on the front lines, where there are tons of structural inequities and deficits based on historical policies that have not leveled the playing field, particularly for people of color, has led to poor health outcomes in communities that I was working with,” he says. “So my personal interest in health has been about looking at how to create more access points and focus on the structural causes of inadequate and unacceptable health outcomes in our country.”

Moran praises the work of his predecessor, Don Blanchon, who earlier this year announced his retirement from Whitman-Walker.

“I’m grateful for what Don has done over the past 15 years at the helm, because I recognize that the LGBTQ community continues to have this place to come to every single day where they can receive exceptional care, and have a sanctuary where people can advocate for individuals on their behalf, and recognizing that, without his leadership, that may not have been the case — given what he walked into on Day One in 2006,” he says.

Moran hopes that his collaborative and relationship-based style of leadership will help foster relationships with others, most notably Whitman-Walker Health CEO Naseema Shafi, his counterpart for the health center’s medical services arm. As head of the Health System, he will oversee the Whitman-Walker Institute, which deals with research, policy and education; the Whitman-Walker Foundation, the system’s philanthropic arm; and its real estate ventures, which seek to generate stable income that can help keep the organization financially solvent and ensure its sustainability for future generations.

“I’m thrilled that Ryan is joining the Whitman-Walker team as my partner CEO,” Shafi said in a statement to Metro Weekly. “His personal and professional commitments and interests directly align with Whitman-Walker’s collective efforts to increase engagement in community-based care, research and policy.”

Referring to Whitman-Walker’s expansion and the construction of a health center on the St. Elizabeths Campus in Southeast D.C., Shafi added, “The work we do to bring our vision for the expansion in Congress Heights to life, and to build upon the overall resiliency of Whitman-Walker will undoubtedly be richer because of Ryan’s experience, kindness, and optimism.”

Harry Fox, the board chair of the Whitman-Walker Health System, noted that Moran was chosen after an extensive year-and-a-half-long search process.

“We saw in Ryan the rare combination of deep health care domain expertise, strong leadership experience in a complex health care environment, and a deep passion for the mission,” Fox says. “I have personally enjoyed getting to know Ryan and have continued to be impressed at his energy and understanding of our organization. Ryan was an outstanding choice for this role.”

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Ryan Moran — Photo: Jay Lautner, Whitman-Walker

METRO WEEKLY: You’ve noted the importance of your upbringing on how you approach your work. Where did you grow up and what was your family like?

RYAN MORAN: I’m from a small town in West Virginia called Bruceton Mills. It’s in the north-central portion of the state and the U.S. Census Bureau estimates the downtown area has about 84 people. But obviously there’s about a couple thousand people spread out across surrounding rural areas. So it’s an incredibly small-town environment. I have some good memories there. The town celebrates, every year, the Good Neighbor Days Festival, so it’s very much collegial and has that small-town feeling that you would predict.

My family has a really long history of working-class roots, as you might imagine, coming from a West Virginia background that includes coal mining. My family had, at one time, a dairy farm operation, and we currently own and operate a beef cattle farm in my hometown. I’m very proud of those working-class roots.

My 96-year-old grandmother is the rock of my life. Her name is Colleen, but I call her Granny. And Granny has been an incredible champion in my life. She is the wife of my grandfather, who passed from black lung disease. Both of them created roots within our hometown. She still lives on the family farm that my family operates.

I’m close to my family. I have two nephews and a niece. I also have a twin sister, and she and my entire family live back in West Virginia. My mom is the local school secretary for the elementary and middle school in my hometown, and my father is most recently retired and works on our family farm. So I’m still very close with them.

MW: What did you do after graduating high school?

MORAN: I went to the University of Charleston, a small liberal arts college in West Virginia. I studied public policy and business administration.

You know, not a whole lot of people know about it, but I had faculty, as well as administrators, who encouraged me to apply for the Rhodes Scholarship. And we put an application together. Obviously, it comes with a written narrative and you submit it. And I got invited to compete. They split up competitions of Rhodes Scholarship experiences throughout the country based on the jurisdiction of the state. So I was competing against people in Delaware and West Virginia, maybe Maryland, if I remember.

But I went to Philadelphia and competed. And here I am, this boy from rural West Virginia. It was a totally life changing experience. I wasn’t named a Rhodes Scholar, even though I went through a competition process. But that experience allowed me to be among a group of people, and it really was the first time where I truly believed that, despite my background, anything was possible.

MW: What did you want to do after college? Was health management always the focus?

MORAN: Interestingly, I had political aspirations to come back to my hometown and potentially run for office. I did internships in the State Senate, and I worked on a congressional campaign in West Virginia, in the 1st Congressional District, which was great fun.

I was reflecting on when I was working in the State Senate as an intern and my senator, Mike Oliveiro, who was a Democrat in north-central West Virginia, was looking to run for Congress back in 2009, 2010, and at that time there was the debate over “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and what the future of that policy would be in terms of military service. And when you think about the 1st Congressional District, it’s a fairly socially conservative portion of the state, and he’s running as a Democrat. I remember being in his office — and I wasn’t out at the time — but he asked me, “Ryan, what do we think about gays in the military?” And I had this experience, as I was reconciling my own identity, but I remember exactly what I said, which was “Mike, any able-bodied person should serve our country.”

And he was asked about that on the campaign, and from my recollection that’s kind of the terms he used, but it’s just interesting, when I reflect back on that environment, especially in West Virginia — which, as you know, has become less and less Democratic in terms of statewide office. Joe Manchin is currently the only one left.

MW: Although to be fair, your state senator did have a very narrow loss when he ran for Congress.

MORAN: He did. So he ran against and unseated a 30-year incumbent in the primary, and then Mike lost to the current Congressman David McKinley, who still serves as Republican in Congress, by 1,400 votes.

MW: What prompted your transition from politics into the world of health and health management?

MORAN: Even though my experience working in politics was fun, I realized, at the same time that I was coming to terms with myself as a gay male, and that my identity, as well as my personal views, weren’t necessarily going to be acceptable back home. While I was working for the senator, I had a lot of interest in health policy, and I really started questioning how the things we were doing and crafting really impacted hospitals, health systems, and frontline providers. And the senator said, “Well, I don’t know, maybe we should go find out.”

So I made a cold call to the local hospital president in Charleston, West Virginia. I asked him if I could come in and meet with him for a day. It actually took me three attempts to reach his office, and I ended up spending an entire summer, as well as on and off throughout the school year, shadowing the president, learning about hospital and health system operations, which kind of led me on this trajectory today. I realized that there was this whole other world in terms of health management, and it was kind of a revelation that physicians didn’t necessarily run hospitals and that you can have an ability to make a big difference in the hospital management space.

I actually had a mentor at Charleston Area Medical Center who went to Xavier University for his graduate degree in Health Services Administration. And that led me to apply to Xavier ultimately, where I earned a Master of Health Services Administration. That program was two years of coursework and then a third-year fellowship, and I did a full year fellowship with the president and CEO of MedStar Health, Ken Samet, as part of my third year. I worked at our system corporate office in Columbia, and after that, I took a job serving basically as chief of staff to the hospital president at two hospitals in Baltimore City with MedStar, and have served in a number of different roles throughout the MedStar system.

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Ryan Moran — Photo: Jay Lautner, Whitman-Walker

MW: You also earned a doctorate degree?

MORAN: I received a doctorate in public health from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. But I just like to be called Ryan, and don’t go by “Dr. Moran” unless I’m in the classroom. I do actually hold some teaching and faculty adjunct positions at Hopkins and UC, so I don’t mind students using doctor in that context.

MW: What did your work at MedStar entail?

MORAN: At MedStar Health, I’ve had a few roles, but for the majority of my tenure there, now almost the past eight years, at the core, the work that I’ve had the good fortune to lead was to transform the healthcare delivery model, and that transformation was to literally envision something different about the way that we as an industry do business. That transformation, which I’ve been leading over the last five years across the Baltimore region, was about building an infrastructure of community and population health services to expand care — both social and medical services — across our region, outside of the four walls of the hospital.

So that work kind of boils down to three strategic components: community health, targeted clinical programs, and care transitions. There are a number of different examples that I’m incredibly proud of, that I think are a complement to the work that Whitman-Walker does as an organization.

I had the opportunity to develop and hone a community health worker program, which hired community residents to be ambassadors of health and remove social needs for our patients and communities. We partnered with agencies to deploy violence responders in our emergency departments to eradicate homicides, which actually did lead to communities celebrating homicide-free communities, over a period of time, which was particularly important in Baltimore City. My doctoral work and focus has been addressing our nation’s opioid epidemic. I led the opportunity to integrate harm reduction and universally screening patients at MedStar for substance use. Thinking about food as medicine, providing patients with prescriptions for fresh produce. And then, lastly, the other example that I would name would be launching a mobile health service, which led to the design of a mobile vaccination clinic as we responded to COVID-19.

MW: Let’s talk about your coming out experience. Who was the first person you told?

MORAN: Growing up in small-town America, as one might expect I experienced a range of reactions to coming out. I came out in my second year of college. I first told a dear friend and colleague at the time.

Of course, there were people who did not accept me, and who were hesitant to accept who I was. And I think that story is common to many of the people in our community. I was not immune to bullying or hurt or disappointment. And I have some pretty excruciating memories of some of those experiences. I am also a big Brené Brown follower, so I learned really what the definition of vulnerability was and how fragile we all as humans are, in my coming out experience.

I grew up in a household that was very embedded within faith. I identified, and still identify, as a person of faith, so that has been challenging. But I have grown significantly in terms of reconciling what it means to be a person of faith and to be LGBTQ and currently an active member of the Presbyterian Church, PC U.S.A., which is more of a liberal branch, and I attend regularly. I’m an active member of the congregation. I serve as a deacon, I’m on the personnel committee for my church in Baltimore, and obviously all that’s going to change. But that’s where I’ve settled in terms of being a part of the faith community.

MW: How did that journey to self-acceptance develop?

MORAN: I was fortunate in college to be accepted by the small group of people that I started coming out to, including the first person I came out to. I also found great solace and acceptance among faculty members. I became incredibly close to my faculty in my undergrad institution. That was very helpful, to find adults who introduced me to other people who had similar stories or similar backgrounds that I could identify with and could start the journey of self-acceptance.

It was a slow process of coming out in undergrad, and when I went to Xavier, I fully made the commitment that this wasn’t going to be anything that I would hide. I was going to be fully, wholly Ryan, and haven’t looked back ever since. Xavier also is a Jesuit institution, which tends to be obviously a little bit more liberal in terms of the Catholic faith. But I found incredible acceptance there as well. The chair of the Health Services Administration Program was a nun, and she was incredibly welcoming, too. So I feel like I’ve been fortunate along the way to find people who have helped me on my journey.

MW: What’s your vision for the future of Whitman-Walker?

MORAN: When I think about the transition to Whitman-Walker from where I have been in the past, I’ve given you examples of the work I’ve done, but at the heart of who I am, I want to remove every single barrier that stands in the way for people to achieve their most optimal health status. And that has many different layers, regardless of who you are, who you love, where you come from, what language you speak, or what color your beautiful skin is.

I’ll also just mention that I identify as a gay male. And so the opportunity to join Whitman-Walker Health System, truthfully, feels more like a calling than it is a job opportunity. I have known about this organization for a very long time and its importance to the nation’s history and societal fabric of the country. And so I thought it would just be helpful to name some of the reasons that it’s important for me, thinking about making this particular move, and why I feel that there’s a fit here.

There’s a lot of exciting things happening at Whitman-Walker as an organization. The first is, when I think about the vision for the Whitman-Walker Health System, at least in the short term, I’m excited to execute on the commitment and the opening of St. Elizabeths, which is slated for 2023. That is a truly dramatic expansion of services, and it’s also going to be a new home to many of the team members across the family of companies at Whitman-Walker. We have necessary work that we must do over the next couple of years to raise funds for that initiative and opening.

I’m also looking forward to working with Naseema [Shafi] on the current planning from the clinic operations side. One guiding principle is that the new space must be, like all of the other spaces at Whitman-Walker, radically accessible and open to all. While we have always, as an organization, had a presence in the community of the historic Anacostia neighborhood for almost 30 years, this is truly an opportunity to look at how we engage that specific portion of D.C. in a new way, not only the patients, who will have closer access to high-quality health care, but our employees. I find that incredibly exciting. And that will be the focus point for both Naseema and I moving forward together.

MW: Given the longstanding ties Whitman-Walker has had to the LGBTQ community, how does that affect how you view the health system’s mission and how important is it to keep those ties to the health center’s earliest days?

MORAN: I think it’s vitally important. The ties to the community is what this organization has always been about. We also know that there are opportunities to address intersectional disparities that exist with the LGBTQ community, or take on other social justice fights related to racial justice. So these all play into the vision and the work that Whitman-Walker will do in the future, particularly with our expansion in St. Elizabeths. But the social fabric of who we always have been is incredibly important. Again, I mentioned earlier — and I truly believe it — that the organization has been guided and led by the community that we serve. Historically, that has been the LGBTQ community, and moving forward in the future, we must continue to maintain being guided by that diverse community.

MW: Do you foresee any new initiatives or changes to or streamlining of old initiatives? Are there any things that Whitman-Walker hasn’t done that you would like to institute during your time here?

MORAN: Well, I think I’ll talk a little bit about the specifics to what’s under the purview of the health system model. I will say that, personally, I am not new to creating new ventures nearly from scratch. That’s the experience that I’m proud of that I bring from my time at MedStar Health.

I also look forward, as part of my role, to creating new partnerships and relationships and new business initiatives. Under the health system, of course, is the Whitman-Walker Foundation, the Whitman-Walker Institute and our efforts in real estate development and real property holdings.

Looking at the ways that Don has led real estate ventures, I think that there’s opportunities for us to have continued engagement around community and economic development. Those ventures may be similar to previous real estate venture work, but they also include other opportunities to leverage other sources of funding to address the social determinants of health in communities that we serve. And that is a very important component of the expansion of St. Elizabeths. But the purpose of those ventures is to position and support Whitman-Walker Health moving forward in the future.

Under the health system, there’s also the Whitman Walker Institute, which incorporates policy research and education. So I envision new opportunities to leverage relationships and alliances with local universities on our shared and collective research interests, and to continue to foster our LGBTQ research and policy advocacy.

I also think, coming from a health system in a hospital side, that there’s opportunity to work with other local health systems in the Washington region where we may have shared interests as it relates to not only research, but our clinical care and community health solutions, too.

MW: Regarding the front-facing parts of the health system, obviously there’s fundraising, there’s major gifts, the special events, outreach. How do you see yourself tackling those aspects of this job?

MORAN: I’m looking forward to it. I am a relational people person, and my experiences that I bring to Whitman-Walker as a community health practitioner are those that understand that relationships and connections and being present in community is really important. The other thing that I would say is my view is very similar to Don’s, in the sense that any growth in our foundation efforts allows us to have discretionary income to to invest back into the mission of the work, whether that’s on the clinical side of patient care, or whether that’s our advocacy and research efforts.

I also would note that all of my work has been in the Baltimore region. So I’m looking forward to getting to know Washington’s community at large, including community leaders, business leaders, and government agencies. I’m eager to understand how those relationships can be fostered to support Whitman-Walker as a key part of the community.

MW: Do you have any fears or uncertainties in taking on this job? How do you deal with them?

MORAN: I think you would not be a genuine person if you didn’t have any fears or uncertainties to assume a position like this. To be entrusted with the legacy of the organization is both an honor and humbling.

But of course, I am approaching this with trepidation. This is a volatile environment that we live in. From a fiscal angle, there’s still market uncertainties and financial pressures, particularly for community health centers and federally-qualified health centers like Whitman-Walker. So the opportunity for us, long-term, in the health system model, to really build up the financial sustainability and to grow the portfolio of work that I have discussed is imperative. But some of that obviously depends on the economic situation.

This is also a volatile time in terms of ideology, across the country. We’re moving from the previous administration, which we saw — even though we had made incredible gains in LGBTQ equality under the Obama administration — how very quickly, you can actually lose those gains. And the reality is, if you look across the country and you look at what’s happening within the national dialogue, conspiracy theories, fake news, all of this plays a role in figuring out how do organizations — particularly Whitman-Walker, who’s entrusted to take care of people who have been historically marginalized — respond to those uncertainties and those unknowns.

There’s a number of different pressures and challenges associated with leading an organization like this one. But I benefit from an incredible network of friends, as well as family, who keep me centered in terms of the tough decisions that obviously will come across my desk.

I also use running as an avenue to process decisions and to process what we might do. The best ideas that I’ve ever created or decisions I’ve made have been while running. So I’m looking forward to ensuring that I create a healthy space with the network of friends and family that I do have, as well as maintaining physical activity, which has always kept me centered.

To learn more about Whitman-Walker and its services, visit www.whitman-walker.org.

To make a donation to Whitman-Walker, visit www.whitmanwalkerimpact.org.

Follow Whitman-Walker on Instagram at @WhitmanWalker.

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