By Bridgett Harris
Amber Ptak is the new CEO for Community Health Partners in Colorado Springs — and her appointment is a new milestone in a career devoted to advancing public health.
Ptak grew up just outside of Detroit, and after graduating from high school in 1993, she moved to Kalamazoo and completed a Bachelor of Science degree in community health education at Western Michigan University. While there, she also began working alongside families impacted by HIV/AIDS and learned the importance of advocacy. At the age of 20, she participated in the AIDS Walk in Washington, D.C., to demand better policies to address the crisis and the underprivileged communities it was impacting.
Since then, Ptak has made a career supporting communities through public health. In addition to working in Michigan, she lived in New Zealand, where she worked to improve health outcomes for youths in the city of Dunedin.
Since settling in Colorado Springs more than 20 years ago, she has worked as a violence prevention coordinator for the El Paso County Department of Health & Environment, served as a project director in a federal demonstration initiative to address domestic violence and child maltreatment and served as director of the Gay & Lesbian Fund for Colorado, among other roles. She also earned a master’s degree in public administration from UCCS.
Ptak spoke with the Business Journal about her work and the importance of public health in a thriving community.
What is your role at CHP?
I am the chief executive officer of Community Health Partnership. In my role, I work alongside a passionate group of other CEOs on our board of directors to improve the health of the region. I work with a talented team to increase access to care, particularly for the uninsured, prevent and end homelessness in the region, prevent suicides, and … support those suffering from a substance use disorder.
Why did you take the position?
I accepted the position at CHP because of its vision, the team and the possibilities to truly transform the health of the community. Our board of directors have the influence to make change. Our team has the drive to accomplish results. Our community is hungry for change — everyone who chooses to live in this incredible city should have the opportunities to thrive. However, we have residents who face barriers to health that make it more difficult for them to lead healthy lives. These aspects include which ZIP code they live in, the education they receive, the wages they earn and whether they have access to grocery stores that serve healthy food. We have the opportunity to change that — and CHP will help us get there through a unified, collaborative approach.
What service does CHP provide to the community?
We like to think of collaboration as our superpower. CHP works with others across sectors to address health issues more effectively, while leveraging existing resources as we build new ones. Our approach as a unifier enables stakeholders to consider more than just individual interests. We commit to collective impact. By collaborating with like-minded organizations and experts, convening professionals from a variety of sectors, and inviting a variety of thinkers and innovators to the table, we will change the system. Great things happen when we work together.
Tell us about the importance of access to care for those who are uninsured or underinsured.
According to the Colorado Health Institute, about 5.6 percent of El Paso County’s population is uninsured, which accounts for more than 40,000 residents. The cost of health care is an increasing concern for Coloradans. Nearly one in five residents said they had problems paying medical bills in the past year. Understanding and navigating the complex, and often intimidating, health care system is a barrier for many people — particularly for those who are uninsured — and leads to challenges associated with accessing necessary health care.
There are options to support the uninsured, but they remain difficult to navigate, including community health centers, safety net clinics, health fairs and other screening programs. Some of these programs offer free services, while others offer services for reduced fees. … Access to specialty care is a significant problem for residents across the state. While there are state programs that help the uninsured pay medical bills, most people don’t know they exist.
What impact has COVID-19 had on CHP? How is it affecting your ability to reach underserved populations?
Because we do not provide direct services, our operations have not changed significantly as a result of COVID-19. Our staff is relatively small — 13 team members — so we have been able to pivot our resources quickly to support emergent needs, including helping to coordinate the Homeless Isolation Center, increase communications among the safety net clinics, work with others to develop resources to increase access to mental health resources and increase access to substance use recovery and treatment options.
Our partner and member agencies have been more impacted by COVID-19, and our goal is to work alongside them to support the populations struggling the most. We haven’t begun to imagine what our lives will be like 18 to 24 months from now, but we are committed to helping our members and community navigate these changes.
What has the pandemic taught you about leadership?
Recent events have reminded me to have grace with myself and with others as we navigate the unknown. Some parents are working more hours while having to create structure for their children who are now studying at home. Remaining flexible while focusing on results is really important. Managing remote teams presents new challenges and opportunities, so checking in with them often has been critical to keeping us focused on our vision and supporting each other at the same time. We forget how important those break room conversations are to developing and maintaining relationships. It was easier to leverage our strengths when we shared space. We have to continue to reach out to each other and ask for help when we need it.
What inspires you about the work you do?
I am inspired by the work that CHP is doing because it matters. We have to work jointly with others across sectors to change the way systems respond to the people who need our help. … We need to design systems that put people, the users of those systems, in the middle. I am inspired to help those people lead healthier lives. Why? Because health is central to human happiness. Everyone deserves access to better health.
Did any step in your journey dramatically shift your career?
The one step I can point to that dramatically shifted my career is mentorship, particularly among women leaders. I happened to find other women leaders who took me under their wings and supported my professional development every step of the way. These leaders encouraged me and help me break down barriers I wouldn’t have been able to do alone. Supporting other women in leadership roles is critical and I hope to return the favor to other women just entering their professional careers or those who struggle to advance in their careers.
What is your proudest achievement?
I am so proud that I can be a woman in a leadership position and balance that with my role as a mom. I know this is a privilege and it is a result of an incredibly supportive community. I have a 10-year-old daughter who has empathy — in my opinion, there is no greater gift to teach our children than empathy and when that is reinforced by her school, she is able to navigate the world with more understanding.
I also believe very strongly in creating and maintaining an organizational culture that recognizes that we are human. We have lives outside of the office and we will be more productive when we are able to strike more balance. I am so proud of the culture at CHP — we will continue to learn, grow and support each other in order to do our best work.
Any advice for those just starting out?
Take advantage of every learning opportunity presented to you — you will be a better leader when you know yourself better. Surround yourself with people who will challenge your thinking. … Find a mentor or group of people who will support you and help you navigate tough times, while pushing you to try harder. When it is safe to do so, travel as often as possible to experience different cultures; this will not only help you increase your empathy, it will remind you that one way isn’t the right way.
Be ready to take risks and make mistakes. … Fall down, pick yourself up, and try again — and create a culture that allows others to do the same. Be yourself. There is so much pressure put on us as leaders and we all bring something different to the table. Women are often challenged by being “too much” or “not enough.” Let’s not be too hard on ourselves or others as we navigate the world together.