Partner Spotlight

Partners in Progress: Brock Slabach, COO of the National Rural Health Association

May 29, 2024


Brock Slabach, COO of the National Rural Health Association
Brock Slabach, COO of the National Rural Health Association

At Stroudwater Capital Partners, we know our work wouldn’t be possible without the clients and collaborators who share our vision for reinventing rural healthcare. Through our Partners in Progress spotlight series, we celebrate the people who make these projects possible, trace the journey that led them to their role, and learn more about the work they’re doing to make widespread rural healthcare a reality. 

Today, we get to know Brock Slabach, COO of the National Rural Health Association (NRHA).

Building a Cross-Country Resume and Settling in Centreville

Brock Slabach’s career is a testament to his dedication and passion for rural healthcare. His first healthcare administration role came after graduate school, in a small hospital in southern Ohio. His early career was marked by significant learning experiences, including serving as an interim CEO for various hospitals, a role that required him to stabilize operations and implement new programming strategies to suit the unique needs of each hospital system. Every stepping stone came with new takeaways and, after braving the cold of West Virginia and the humidity of Southwest Mississippi, Slabach finally settled in Centreville, Mississippi. In keeping with its name, the small town sits squarely between Natchez and Baton Rouge. 

In Centreville, Slabach encountered a rural hospital that, despite its outdated facilities, had a strong board and dedicated medical staff. The hospital served two large counties in Mississippi, making it a vital institution in the wider surrounding area. Slabach’s tenure at this hospital spanned an impressive two decades, leaving a lasting impact on the hospital and its staff.

“I loved the hospital and its people,” said Slabach. “It was a tight-knit community hospital with many great people who’d grown up in Centreville and cared about the community. They asked me to stay, and I did. I stayed for 20 years.”

Going National and Navigating Periods of Significant Policy Change 

In 2008, after decades of on-the-ground experience in rural hospitals, Slabach was ready for a new chapter and took his talents to the NRHA. His work during that time coincided with significant policy changes, such as the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the Affordable Care Act. Shaping the entire healthcare landscape, these sweeping changes brought both considerable challenges and exciting opportunities to rural healthcare. Slabach helped the NRHA and hospitals around the country alike navigate it all—and [or, work that] continues to this day.

“Much of our work was focused on helping rural hospitals figure out their role amid a flow of constant change and shifting contexts,” recalled Slabach. “There were periods of positive and negative change, bright spots and unavoidable challenges. Every day, we did—and continue to do—our best to navigate those.” 

His years as a hospital administrator taught Slabach to stay nimble and think outside the box. Now, in his role at the NRHA, he continues to lean on these valuable skills.

“A surgeon at my hospital in Mississippi would always say we have to be innovative and creative, innovative and creative. He would say that over and over, and I began to ingest that because, in rural healthcare, it’s really true. Rural providers can take a little bit and make it go a long way.” 

Stepping Up in Times of Crisis, Time and Time Again 

In rural healthcare, resources are always limited, policies are never a one-size-fits-all solution, and every community’s needs differ. Additionally, some—or all—of these variables can change at any given moment. 

In 2005, Slabach saw first-hand just how fast circumstances can change after living through Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and Mississippi. Everyone in the community had lost power, but the hospital had a generator that could run for a few days. That meant the hospital was the only place in the entire community with a kitchen to produce warm meals. As untold numbers of people were forced to flee their homes without notice, the hospital not only saw patients who were directly injured by the storm but also those who’d left without their medications and those who could no longer go to their dialysis center or pharmacy. Time and time again, hospital staff members stepped up to these challenges in support of their community. 

“Rural health care becomes a beacon in the time of crisis, and rural healthcare providers rise to the challenge,” recalled Slabach. When patients couldn’t receive the specialized care they needed in our community due to the storm’s impact, we had employees volunteer to personally transport them out of town for treatments. We didn’t question these things. We just did them.” 

When the pandemic hit, Slabach and the rest of the healthcare sector saw care centers worldwide become community beacons yet again. The stress placed on the systems and the providers during this time was immeasurable and continues to be felt to this day. Now at the NRHA, Slabach is keenly aware of the pandemic’s still unforeseen, long-lasting impacts. It underscored inequities and inflicted burnout on providers, and he knows that addressing both will be essential as the organization—and the healthcare sector at large—looks to the future.

Paving the Way for Progress and Making Healthcare Work for Everyone

Looking to the future, a major focus of the NRHA, and for Slabach, is creating a country where everyone has access to quality healthcare. Of course, chipping away at systemic and long-standing inequities is no small task, but it’s one that he works to move the needle on every day. 

“Rural areas of our country produce all the food, fuel, and fiber that power the rest of the population. We must be aware of this exchange and that our urban and rural citizens deserve the same level of healthcare access. As someone who comes from a farming family, I know that asking someone who on a daily basis is doing demanding, often backbreaking work to go to a far-off city for care is a nonstarter,” explained Slabach. 

Championing rural healthcare at every opportunity is one way to spread awareness of the importance of access, and Slabach has used his roles as NRHA COO, NHRA board member, and American Hospital Association board member to do just that. Over the years, he has delivered hundreds of presentations and traveled thousands of miles across rural America to meet with healthcare professionals, hospital administrators, and community leaders. Additionally, his expertise in rural health system development, including population health and payment programs, has been crucial in moving rural providers into value-based purchasing models.

Throughout his career, Slabach has been recognized for these important contributions, receiving the Calico Quality Leadership Award of the National Rural Health Resource Center in 2015 and the American Society of Healthcare Pharmacists (ASHP) Board of Directors’ Award of Honor in 2018. 

As a rural healthcare champion through and through, Slabach continues to love what he does and hopes to see more providers and administrators find their way into rural healthcare. 

“Not everyone knows that they are valued and needed when they go to work, but those who choose to work in rural healthcare know that every day.” 

His advice for leaders facing difficulties or simply looking to be successful as they look to the future is to reach out and lean on others for support. In healthcare—and particularly in rural healthcare—it’s not hard to find people who are passionate about the work and more than willing to partner with others who share that passion. 

“I always come back to our tagline at the NRHA. ‘Your voice. Louder.’ We can sometimes feel like a silent, one-person voice out in the middle of the wilderness. But when you come together with thousands of other people voicing the same issues, that has a real impact. That is how we find solutions, generate awareness, and make policy changes. We are always stronger together.”