Leadership through relationships
Y“He’s a master of mentoring.”
oshi Honkawa is, in his own words, a people person. Though it might seem an inadequate description for someone who is renowned in the healthcare administration and policy arenas, the label is nonetheless a fitting one for the 90-year-old leader. During his 50-year career, he has met and earned the respect, admiration and friendship of a who’s who list of healthcare and political decisionmakers and thought leaders in California, Washington and everywhere in between.
“He’s the master of developing relationships,” said Thomas Priselac, president and CEO of Cedars-Sinai Health System in Los Angeles.
Priselac experienced that firsthand when he joined Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in 1979 as an assistant administrator. Honkawa had come to CedarsSinai four years before when he was named its director of finance in 1975.
“It was my good fortune that Yoshi took me under his wing,” Priselac said. “He helped me understand Cedars-Sinai as an organization, where the priorities are and where the challenges are.”
Honkawa knew the challenges well. When he joined the organization, operations were at two facilities—Cedars of Lebanon in Hollywood, Calif., and Mount Sinai in Beverly Hills, Calif.—and uniting them at one location seemed financially unfeasible. Cedars-Sinai needed a $90 million loan to cover construction costs for a new campus, but at the time, the largest state-guaranteed loan being granted was $25 million, $65 million shy of what was needed.
That’s when some of Honkawa’s earlier relationships, established during his four-year tenure with the State of California Advisory Health Council, came in handy. Ronald Reagan, as California governor, appointed Honkawa to the panel as its first chairman in 1973, and he was just ending his term. The council’s role was to help plan for and recruit healthcare facilities and personnel to traditionally medically underserved areas.
“I got the chance to meet a large number of people, and they all became friends of mine,” Honkawa said. “Because of the relationships I developed with them and the trust they had with me, when it came down to presenting the loan package, I secured the votes and got it approved.”
Securing the loan guarantee that led to, as Honkawa puts it, “CedarsSinai becoming Cedars-Sinai,” is certainly one of the highlights Honkawa cites in his career, but he says it’s hard to pick just one.
It is for his myriad accomplishments in healthcare administration and policy that Honkawa has been named one of this year’s inductees into Modern Healthcare’s Health Care Hall of Fame.
His career began in 1964 as comptroller and assistant administrator at the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center. He was quickly promoted to associate administrator before joining the L.A. County Department of Hospitals in 1969 as director of fiscal and hospital program planning.
Honkawa credits his parents with giving him the work ethic and values on which his career has been built. The son of Japanese immigrants, he was raised in Billings, Mont. He recalls skipping his first year of school after listening to his mother teach his older siblings numbers and the alphabet every morning, when she herself spoke limited English upon arriving in the U.S.
His mother also dressed him up for school every morning, insisting that he wear a bowtie. “It was a lesson in pride and how you want people to perceive you,” Honkawa said.
At the restaurant the family owned, Honkawa helped alongside his parents and three older siblings. He watched his father, who spent 15 hours a day working in the restaurant, develop relationships with suppliers, customers and employees. Honkawa said those interactions and his father’s dedication to his work taught him early lessons about honesty, integrity, loyalty and strength of character.
“Yoshi is one of the kindest, most caring and most decent human beings on earth,” said Leonard Schaeffer, founding chairman and retired CEO of WellPoint. “He’s always there to help and facilitate a positive relationship, to get things resolved and bring people together.”
It’s one of the reasons, after Honkawa was recruited to the role of deputy director for finance and legislation at the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services in 1972, he
was selected to travel with a group to Washington to help determine a payment system for counties under the relatively new Medicare and Medicaid programs. But when the first trip didn’t yield much in the way of a solution, Honkawa went back to Washington by himself to meet with lawmakers on the department’s behalf and helped develop a payment system for Los Angeles County that became a model for other communities.
That advocacy experience led to additional opportunities to consult and advise, both in California’s capital of Sacramento and in the nation’s capital. In addition to serving as a member of the California Health Policy and Data Advisory Commission, first appointed by Gov. George Deukmejian and then by Gov. Pete Wilson, Honkawa was also appointed to and later chaired the National Council on Health Planning and Development under President Jimmy Carter to consult on national health policies.
“Yoshi possesses a unique ability to work across the political spectrum,” Priselac said. “Throughout his career he was viewed as a trusted resource on both sides of the aisle.”
He also became the face of Cedars-Sinai, taking on the role of vice president for government and industry relations in 1978.
That’s when Richard Pollack, who was early in his career with the American Hospital Association, met Honkawa. He’s now the AHA’s executive vice president for advocacy and public policy.
“Yoshi was a passionate advocate on (CedarsSinai’s) behalf for research and graduate medical education, in terms of making sure resources were there to train the next generation of caregivers,” Pollack said.
That focus on the next generation is one of Honkawa’s hallmarks. “He’s a master of mentoring,” Pollack said. Jack Knott, dean of the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, agreed. “He’s been a mentor to our students and to members of our staff,” Knott said. “He’s a tremendous role model with great integrity, great skill and capacity, and compassion for people.”
He’s also been a powerful advocate for USC, connecting his alma mater with various organizations and health industry leaders, assisting with health administration and policy programs, and helping to raise money. Honkawa and May, his wife of 59 years, even gifted their 20-acre avocado farm to fund a graduate fellowship. “I can’t think of anyone who has done more for the school,” Knott said.
It’s with that knowledge that the school’s lifetime service award established last year bears Honkawa’s name.
Another part of Honkawa’s legacy is in his role as founding board member for the Institute for Diversity in Health Management, created in 1994, and designed to attract minorities to hospital leadership positions and help advance their careers. But less formally, he’s provided advice, guidance, connections and introductions to students, young professionals and even colleagues older than himself, as mentoring is still a big part of his mission today.
So too is leadership on various boards and committees. Honkawa has been actively involved with numerous local, state and national organizations, including the California Hospital Association, American Hospital Association and Federation of American Hospitals. He serves on the Friends of the USC Libraries Board, as a Presidential Associate for the school, and since 2007 has volunteered with global humanitarian group B’nai B’rith International.
Despite retiring from Cedars-Sinai in 2001, Honkawa has continued to advance the work and the causes for which he has always been a champion—mainly mentoring people and connecting people.
“When you develop all of these relationships, you get a huge cadre of access,” Honkawa said. “I want to share that.”
Honkawa with President Bill Clinton at the White House in May 1993 for ceremonies celebrating Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month.
Honkawa stands with the documentation that was required to secure financing and permission to build the new Cedars-Sinai campus.