Martha Santana-Chin: Champion for Health Award Honoree

Part One – It’s deeply personal

A program builder is honored for her work in breaking down barriers.

Martha Santana-Chin is the 2024 Recipient of Partners’ Champion for Health Award. 

Martha Santana-Chin, the 2024 recipient of Partners in Care Foundation’s Champion for Health Award, said a career in healthcare is where she’s meant to be. 

“Making healthcare work is deeply personal to me,” said Santana-Chin, Medi-Cal and Medicare President of Health Net and whose family once relied on Medi-Cal to access health care. “I am eternally grateful for the safety net the program provided to my family.” Her mother, who died at 62, suffered from diabetes and struggled with bipolar depression, which was not diagnosed until late in her life. “Had she been diagnosed and treated earlier, the quality of her life would’ve been much different. She might even be here with us today.

“As an industry, we still have a lot of work to do. We have an opportunity to positively impact generations by providing culturally competent, appropriate care. By ensuring that our communities are served by people that look like them, we are more likely to markedly improve health outcomes. We have the tools to positively impact individuals and their families by creating career pathways that lift people out of poverty, as we provide culturally congruent care. While early in my career I kind of fell into working in healthcare out of necessity to provide for my family, now there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. There’s a lot of work to do to advance health equity and I’m optimistic and excited about this next part of our journey.” 

Santana-Chin is a managed care plan leader with nearly three decades of experience in managed care, operations, delivery system strategy, provider relations, network management, value-based care programs and overall business unit accountability. She has designed and led transformational programs to improve access to care for California’s most vulnerable residents, advance health equity and scale value-based care models. Her extensive healthcare leadership experience includes working with independent physician practices, risk bearing provider organizations, hospitals, Federally Qualified Health Centers and health plans, serving Medi-Cal and low-income communities. 

In her current role, Santana-Chin leads Health Net’s operations in California as well as the Medicare and Medi-Cal business lines, which serve over two million members. She is accountable for long-term strategic planning, plan operations and the successful execution of annual plans to deliver high-quality affordable care. To help ensure that Health Net meets the unique needs of local communities, she collaborates with leaders in the healthcare delivery system and community stakeholders. 

“It’s quite humbling and an honor that Partners in Care Foundation has chosen to recognize our work,” she said. “The Champion for Health Award is re-energizing and an inspiration to double down on our commitment to improve care for our communities.

“Our team has been working tirelessly to transform the Medi-Cal program to deliver on our mission to transform our communities as well as the bold vision that has been set out by the state. We’ve embarked on this journey to build the systems and the infrastructure that are needed to support whole-person care. We’ve done that by partnering with our clinic, hospital and physician partners as well as providers, like Partners in Care Foundation and other community-based organizations, and county agencies. Through the passionate and unrelenting dedication of our team, we’re working on systematically breaking down barriers to advance health equity. I couldn’t be prouder of our work.” 

Santana-Chin said her career has been focused on building, problem solving, transforming and a dedication to serving underserved communities.

“I would characterize my career at Health Net as problem solving, building and scaling,” she said. “Most of my work is focused on low-income populations through a variety of government-sponsored programs. With a highly passionate and dedicated team, we implemented a program that integrated Medicare and Medi-Cal for dually eligible individuals, developed a population health management program and launched innovative programs such as: face to face in-home care for high risk individuals, recuperative care to support high risk individuals with concurrent physical behavioral and social needs, street medicine training, school-based telehealth services and other programs focused on expanding access and meeting our members where they are. We invested in our communities and planted seeds many years ago that provided a foundation for the successful implementation of CalAIM. We’ve focused on implementing a variety of benefits and services, all designed to improve health and wellbeing and ultimately advance health equity for our members. We embrace our responsibility to innovate and to frame our partnerships in a manner that drives value throughout the healthcare delivery system.” 

As a Latina leader, the eldest of nine and daughter of immigrants, she prides herself with understanding first-hand the struggles that low-income communities face. Santana-Chin’s personal journey has fueled a passion for advancing equity and mentoring others to persevere and thrive in their life and careers.

“I have often found myself in a position where I am the only person in the room who looks like me, especially as I got higher in the leadership ranks,” she said. “I struggled with all the things you hear about, including not feeling like you belong, imposter syndrome. But I had someone once tell me, ‘To be an extraordinary leader, there’s no one better you can be than yourself.’ It’s that simple permission that a senior executive gave me that really turned things around for me.

“That advice forced me to recognize and remember that we all come into this world with our own unique experiences that shape who we are. They make us genuinely us. With focus and intentional personal development, we all have the power to become great leaders. Learning to lead in a manner that takes the best of you is a powerful thing. That was a turning point in my career.”

Prior to joining Health Net in 2013, Santana-Chin served in leadership positions with AltaMed Health Services and Tenet Health Systems for over two decades.

When asked to talk about some influential mentors, she first mentioned her mother and husband, and then added, “I’ve been fortunate to have had bosses who are all extraordinary in their own right and have learned from each one of them. Megan North, the person I reported to while I was at Tenet, made a significant impact on my trajectory and engrained the power of ‘simply telling the story.’ Castulo de la Rocha, my boss at AltaMed, is someone who leads from the heart and with conviction and is a force to be reckoned with. He had a tremendous influence on how I’ve shaped my own approach to leadership. Martha Smith, a former boss, listens empathetically, champions and empowers. My current boss, Brian Ternan, brings a sense of calm, collaboration and perspective to our work – day in and day out – and is similarly impactful. I’m blessed to call these individuals friends and people who I lean on to this day. 

“I’ll just sum it up by saying, they pushed me to be confident and empowered me to live up to my full potential. They taught me to keep things simple and use the power of storytelling. They’ve taught me to advocate, do it with intention, and to lead with conviction. They taught me to harness the power of the collective. We can do more together than we can alone.

“The other thing that I would say that we often overlook, is the power of leading by example. They taught me to reflect and appreciate both the good times and the bad times – the good times to celebrate our wins and what we’ve accomplished, but also the bad times to be certain that we learn and grow.”

Santana-Chin says she encourages her employees to be bold. “Everything that we do is a risk,” she said. “As long as we take calculated risks and couple them with mitigation strategies, we’re going to deliver on what we’re all here to do.

“We do great work. It’s important that we share stories and connect the why with the what. That motivates our people. They want to make a difference. 

“I’m wired with a strong work ethic and a deep desire to nurture and support. When I see people get stuck and needing a way to get unstuck, I’m always willing to listen, lean in and partner with them to help them think things through. I want people to understand that there’s support and that they can lean on others to thrive. 

“I would sum it up by saying that leadership is about being a compelling and authentic communicator and being an active and empathetic listener. Being adaptive, yet discerning and decisive, is a powerful combination.”

The presentation of Santana-Chin’s Champion for Health Award will take place at Partners in Care Foundation’s 24th Annual Tribute Dinner on Wednesday, June 12, 2024. To learn more about this event, register to attend, and to sign up as a sponsor, please visit Partners’ 2024 Annual Vision, Excellence, and Leadership Dinner.

Partners in Care Foundation is a nonprofit organization based in San Fernando. Its mission addresses the social determinants of health by aligning social care and healthcare.

Part 2 – ‘The value of hard work’

A willingness to do whatever it takes to solve problems, innovate and get things done leads to success. 

Martha Santana-Chin, the 2024 recipient of Partners in Care Foundation’s Champion for Health Award, is the oldest of nine children and learned about handling responsibility at an early age. 

“I always smile when people ask me about my first job, because it reminds me so much of my mother and who she was,” said Santana-Chin, Medi-Cal and Medicare President of Health Net. “My first job was selling Stanley cleaning products door-to-door. My mother did everything she possibly could to earn a living, so she became a Stanley cleaning products salesperson. But she didn’t speak English very well, so I was her sales agent at the age of eleven.”

Santana-Chin’s mother was an immigrant farm worker with a second-grade education. She worked multiple jobs to provide for her family. “For a large part of our lives, she was a single mother, so I quickly learned to do my part to contribute and to support the family,” said Santana-Chin. “We grew up in poverty and moved eleven times before I entered high school. For a few months, we lived in a shelter because we ended up losing our home. So, I had to grow up quickly.” 

Despite those difficulties, she said she is grateful for those childhood experiences. “It gave me the ability to persevere,” she said. 

“One thing that is important to note is that given our circumstances, we grew up on Medi-Cal, so I have a deep appreciation for the impact that the safety net has on the lives of the people that we serve. The work I do now is near and dear to my heart.”

When she was old enough to have a worker’s permit, Santana-Chin got a job at McDonald’s. Her first office job was as a receptionist in a doctor’s office in Oxnard. “I’ve been working ever since,” she said. “My mother taught us the value of hustle. She instilled a work ethic like nobody’s business. The value of hard work, the need to do my part and to contribute, has always been something that has stuck with me.” 

Santana-Chin graduated from California State University, Long Beach, with a Bachelor of Science degree in business finance, She later earned a master’s degree in business administration from the University of California, Irvine. 

“I’ve never not had a job,” she said. “I worked my way through college, starting with working as a receptionist in a doctor’s office. While going to Cal State Long Beach, I ended up working for Tenet Physician Services, a fully owned subsidiary of Tenet Health Systems in a temporary position with the organization that started my career in managed care.

“I joined Tenet when Medi-Cal was first transitioning into managed care. I had the privilege of working with a dynamic group of individuals who were charged with organizing independent physicians to form independent practice associations who partnered with local hospitals to assume responsibility for managing Medi-Cal populations under risk-based arrangements. I was charged with developing their networks, managing their businesses and leading health plan negotiations and worked there for about 15 years. During this period, we built the administrative infrastructure necessary to fulfill obligations to the regulators, formed physician owned and operated entities, engaged community-based physicians to expand access to underserved communities, developed physician and hospital partnership models and enabled these partnerships to care for population needs in a sustainable manner. Our focus was access, partnership and sustainability. It was a powerful set of foundational experiences that I’m grateful for.”

She next worked for AltaMed Health Services for slightly under 10 years, where she was charged with running their managed care business. AltaMed is the largest privately run federally qualified healthcare clinic system in the nation. It is a passionate, mission driven organization that is deeply committed to and an integral part of the fabric of the communities they serve. “During my tenure there, we built infrastructure to manage risk arrangements at scale to support a much broader base of membership and care for higher acuity populations,” she said. “I happened to be there when the Affordable Care Act was implemented, AltaMed made the strategic decision to expand the Program for All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE) and made addressing health disparities and improving quality their top priority. We all were energized by the opportunity to expand access, but knew we had to lead the way to improving outcomes for our communities. So, being able to lead the charge on the managed care front during this pivotal time was a transformative experience. That rich and rewarding experience then led me to Health Net.”

Santana-Chin has life experience to match each of the programs she works with, either as a recipient or a person involved in planning and implementing. Together, the two aspects give her insight, empathy, and motivation to provide the best service possible to those counting on the plan.

She’s been in the right places at the right time, from growing up as a member to working in a provider’s office to being involved at critical inflection points, including the inception of Medi-Cal as a managed care system, expanding the remit of a provider beyond traditional health care services to whole person care, coordinating care between Medi-Cal and Medicare members, and implementing CalAIM. Every time the system advanced, she was at the front lines to implement changes in a way to better serve Medi-Cal recipients. 

“I’ve been fortunate enough in my career to work with a lot of phenomenal people at a point in time when there were significant policy changes impacting the people that we’re serving,” she said. “There have been a lot of building blocks during my life and career – experiencing it firsthand, working with these populations firsthand, partnering with providers and others in communities directly. 

“We’re able to learn from the past and build to scale for the future. We’re now at a juncture where we can architect the future differently. I’m very optimistic because there’s so much energy, not only from where the policy’s going, but from the groundswell of support within our communities.

“There’s something that Sarah London, our chief executive for Centene, says that I really connect with. She talks about the fact that we’re in a position to make impact at scale. Working with all of these leaders over the course of my career and being at the right place at the right time with the policy changes has culminated in a place where we have an opportunity to make impact at scale for underserved communities.”

While speaking at a women’s leadership event last year, Santana-Chin shared a story about a difficult career experience from 20 years ago that ended up being an important learning opportunity. 

“I have always taken great pride in my willingness to do whatever it took to get things done,” she said. “I have always been what some people might call a workhorse. When you wholeheartedly commit and you dedicate yourself to an organization, know you’re delivering day in and day out, and you are passed over for a promotion, it’s really easy to get disenchanted. You may believe that you’re not being appreciated or that you’re being wronged. 

“When an external person was brought in to fill the role that I felt I had earned, I ended up stepping away from who I really was. I ended up not focusing on being a good partner, a good colleague, a good employee. It took me a while to recognize this – that the person who had been hired into that role had a whole separate set of experiences than I had had, and they brought value in their own way.

“What I learned from that process is that regardless of what’s happening around us, there’s always an opportunity for us to learn. There’s always an opportunity for us to improve. If you look around the room, in any room, people bring new tools and perspectives that you could learn from and embrace and add to your own tool belt. In that case, after I reflected in earnest and I took it for what it was, it really helped me to appreciate that. It was definitely a big learning opportunity for me.”

Santana-Chin is a member of the board of directors for the United Way of Greater Los Angeles. She is also a member of the board of directors and executive committee of the Integrated Healthcare Association and a member of the Executive Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council for Centene, the national parent company of Health Net.

“It’s really important that when you’re in a position to be able to do so, that you give back,” she said. “The United Way, as an example, is focused on giving to the people that need it most. It is an organization that recognizes we can accomplish more together than we can alone. I believe in that wholeheartedly. The United Way is focused on advancing innovative policy and community-building initiatives around housing, education, and economic mobility. The team at United Way is enthusiastic and dedicated and works tirelessly to uplift the communities we serve. The more that we can give back, the better that we all do.”

Santana-Chin lives in Pasadena with her husband, Steven Chin, who works in healthcare administration. They have three sons, two in college and one in high school. 

“As parents, we learn every day that every person is an individual for a good reason,” she said. “There’s a reason there aren’t parenting step-by-step instructions. You have to figure out how to connect with each child individually and help them on their own journey into adulthood and beyond.”

Family activities, especially her sons’ sporting events, consume most of her free time, but she also enjoys time with friends, circuit training, reading historical novels (her favorite is “The Nightingale” by Kristin Hannah) and cooking. 

“I’ve had a phenomenal journey and been blessed with a very strong support system,” she said. “My husband, my sons and my extended family and circle of friends are the backbone of my life. They support and inspire me every day to do the work that we’re doing here at Health Net. I appreciate them very much.” 

The presentation of Santana-Chin’s Champion for Health Award will take place at Partners in Care Foundation’s 24th Annual Tribute Dinner on Wednesday, June 12, 2024. To learn more about this event, register to attend, and to sign up as a sponsor, please visit Partners’ 2024 Annual Vision, Excellence, and Leadership Dinner.

Partners in Care Foundation is a nonprofit organization based in San Fernando. Its mission is to address the social determinants of health by aligning social care and healthcare.

Martha Santana Chin

Martha Santana-Chin, Health Net Medi-Cal and Medicare President