By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Swedish Health Services’ CEO Tony Armada, 57, resigned recently after The Seattle Times published an investigative report on the hospital’s negligence towards its neurology patients. Armada’s tenure at Swedish might have been short (three and a half years), but his work for people of color has made more of an impact than his predecessors. Many were shocked,
disappointed, and saddened by the news.
“We in the Filipino business community are saddened by the resignation of Mr. Tony Armada,” said Bert Golla, past president of the Filipino Chamber of Commerce of the Pacific Northwest. “Our trust and respect for him remain solid.”
“I was very much surprised when I learned of his resignation,” said Frank Irigon, a community leader. “I was reminded of former Seattle Mariners coach Don Wakamatsu when he was let go after less than a season with the Mariners. Would they have been given a second chance if they weren’t Asians?”
“We have lost a very good leader in the healthcare industry,” said Ellen Abellera, former executive director for Washington State Commission of Asian Pacific American Affairs. “I am sorry to hear about Tony Armada’s resignation. I am sure he meant well for the organization.”
Multicultural engagement director for Swedish Health Services (SHC), Wendy Zheng, who worked for Armada, said she was just as shocked as other members of the Asian community.
In an exclusive phone interview with the Asian Weekly on his last day at Swedish (Feb. 24), Armada said, “It’s my decision [to resign]. It’s a collective decision with my wife. We all have to respect our own accountability. I want Swedish to make sure that Swedish will be recognized for all the wonderful things it has done and that Swedish takes care of its community.”
Armada said he feels good about his decision. “As leaders, we have to make decisions, [ones] that you don’t do [just] for yourself, but for the good of everybody. If my decision leads to people being open-minded and moving on,” it would serve the purpose, he added.
Armada is known for taking stands, including his recent letter, which said, “We stand with immigrants and refugees,” sent to his employees on SHC’s web site. The letter disagreed with President Donald Trump’s immigration ban.
“I admired [Armada’s] recent statement of solidarity with refugees and immigrants in response to the disturbing presidential executive orders that affected Swedish Health Services’ diverse workforce and patients,” said Ador Yano, a community leader.
A role model
Why several members of the Asian community took Armada’s resignation hard was because there are few Asian Americans who have broken the so-called bamboo ceiling.
“It’s an outstanding achievement to become CEO of a major organization,” said Dolores Sibonga, former Seattle City Council member. In Washington state, Armada was the only Filipino American heading a major mainstream organization. SHC is a $4 billion institute.
Only a handful of Asian American executives are managing big healthcare organizations, Armada said.
“If you’re an Asian American (CEO), it’s even more amazing because we are often viewed as being quiet and submissive — in other words, worker bees and not leaders,” said Sibonga.
“Tony Armada was a great role model and inspiration for our local Filipino and Asian Pacific Islander community,” said Tony Ogilvie, president of the Filipino Chamber of Commerce.
Nelson Tang, a health navigation coordinator who started working at Swedish a year ago, said he regretted that he didn’t have more time to learn from Armada. “Tony is an open-minded leader, very visionary. He is brave to resign and shoulder all the responsibilities.”
Multicultural Initiative program
Because of his background, Armada, has created multicultural initiative for people of color at Swedish. Even more rare among top corporations’ executives, is Armada being an immigrant from the Philippines. He came to this country when he was 9 years old. He was aware of the challenges facing Asian immigrants (especially Chinese, Filipinos, Koreans and Vietnamese) with language and cultural barriers as well as lack of insurance and access to quality health care. Hence, Swedish’s multicultural program was born. It has Asian/Pacific Islander and Black staff members, plus dozens of translators.
“It’s just like going into a black hole for these immigrants … to navigate their way in hospitals,” said Zheng. “But Tony always wants to do the right thing. He’s not afraid to roll up his sleeves and do the dirty work.”
Armada is keen on mentoring. “Mr. Anthony Armada is … a strong supporter of developing leaders in the API community,” said Yano.
Armada founded Asian Healthcare Leaders Forum, a leadership development program under American College of Healthcare Executives with Florence Chang, an executive at MultiCare Health System, to mentor young people interested in pursuing healthcare careers. Armada would mentor one person a year. Zheng said the last person he mentored got a job at Providence after completing his fellowship with Armada.
Zheng said her experience with Armada as a mentor was valuable. Armada would work with her in detail — from the proposal for Asian care to getting funding to developing strategies to execution.
Zheng said Armada is down-to-earth, professional, and has no arrogance. And Armada’s vision can go very, very far, she said.
Support community programs
Under Armada’s leadership, Swedish awarded a Built Health grant of $120,000 to InterImCDA last year to promote environment and public safety issues. The goal is to raise awareness, improve wellness, and health in the community.
Swedish has also directly worked with the International Community Health Services to improve quality care for Asian patients. Armada will be missed. As Ogilvie said, “We will all miss his engaging personality and the support that he offered to our community.”
Armada is taking a leave. He said he won’t be back until next January to see what his options will be. Meanwhile, he will travel to Asia, including China, Japan, and the Philippines. He doesn’t know if he will stay in Seattle.
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.