Angel of mercy for health care

Commutes to Northern California three days a week may seem excessive to the average Glendale resident, but for Robert Issai it's a simple duty.

Issai was elected to the Catholic Health Assn. of the U.S. Board of Trustees June 15. Although his work as president and chief executive of Daughters of Charity Health System is in Los Altos, he commutes to and from the Northern California city to Glendale, where he and his family have lived for 31 years.

Issai will now be responsible for overseeing more than 600 U.S. hospitals under the Catholic Health Assn. of the United States, one of the largest groups of nonprofit hospitals in the country.

Issai and his wife, Alice, moved to Glendale as some of the "first pioneer Armenians" 31 years ago, he said. Now, he wouldn't consider leaving the jewel city.

"When I moved to Glendale in 1979, we had one relative, and we fell in love with the city," he said. " We never wanted to move. Glendale is home. I care about Glendale. I love the city."

Daughters of Charity Health System comprises six hospitals from San Francisco to Los Angeles that serve the poor and sick.

"The position I have has really become a calling for me instead of a career or job," Robert Issai said.

His job with the Daughters of Charity Health System began 18 years ago and is a mission he has devoted himself to.

"Catholic health care, to me, is the best health care in the country," he said. "Daughters of Charity Health System are the best of the best when taking care of disenfranchised and the poor."

Southern California inner-city hospitals that belong to the health system are St. Vincent Medical Center in Los Angeles and St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood.

"It's not an accident that we're not in suburbia, but we are in inner cities taking care of the poor," Robert Issai said. "We bring quality health care and access to health care, which is a problem in our country for the most vulnerable in our society."

Issai will now take on a different role overseeing more than 600 of the Catholic hospitals with his new board of trustees position.

"I'm very privileged and honored that they have bestowed this position to me," he said. "We are in the transformation phase of health care in this country, and Catholic Health Assn. took a very strong position helping Congress through the reform. Health-care reform would not have happened without the Catholic Health Assn. support for reform."

The organization's goal is health care for everyone, and the association writes policy to set the agenda for reform, a task his organization began last year.

"You realize that whether you believe in health-care reform, it's here to stay," Robert Issai said. "Everyone will agree that it is not sustainable. In the next few years, if we don't do anything about it, we will spend more on health care and surpass our spending during wartime."

Alice Issai has also become a prominent leader in health care as chief officer for UC Irvine Medical Center. She said she is looking forward to what he will accomplish.

"I think he has really worked hard and devoted many years of his career to the mission of Catholic health providers, which is to look after the poor and provide the best care possible," Alice Issai said. "I think being so dedicated to that mission has helped him rise to the occasion."

Their mutual passion is what keeps them supporting each other, she said.

"Our commitment to each other and understanding and appreciating how much our careers are important to us really makes us who we are," she said.

Conway Kollis, senior counselor and chief government affairs officer of Daughters of Charity Health System, works closely with Robert Issai and says through Issai and his cooperation with the government, the Daughters of Charity Health System enacted federal and state health-care change.

"I think some people view government as the enemy, and [Issai] realizes that government is the partner of every hospital in California, and he treats government that way," Kollis said. "I think that's part of what makes him so effective."

Kollis believes Robert Issai will continue to do good work in his new role the way he's done for the past 18 years.

"I really see Robert like a great quarterback," Kollis said. "He knows how to keep his cool, to overcome obstacles and get to the goal line. In his case, getting to the goal line is to fulfill the daughters mission of service while remaining financially viable."

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