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One-by-One with Mark Epstein

Mark Epstein is the new head of True Health New Mexico. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Mark Epstein’s passion for medicine had roots in his childhood, when he displayed an interest in “how things work” by taking apart his older brother’s toys.

“I couldn’t put them back together very well, but I did learn to understand how they worked,” says Epstein, who recently was named CEO of True Health New Mexico, a health care insurer. “I have a real systems kind of curiosity.”

Also, he had an early fondness for unpronounceable medical terms.

“I remember going into a medical building and being impressed by how long the words are,” he says. “Otorhinolaryngology.”

Epstein, 55, has worked for Presbyterian Healthcare Services, Lovelace Health System and the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center, where he completed a residency in emergency medicine. He also took a “work sabbatical’ and spent a year at a hospital in New Zealand.

Epstein’s education also includes a business degree, reflected in his health care administration positions and his involvement in several health-related New Mexico startups. He also has been an adviser to the ABQid business accelerator for the past three years.

“Even though I’m in the CEO role (at True Health) – but recently the chief medical officer role – I’m very involved with medical science, and what is just fantastic is the drugs coming down the pipeline are amazing,” he says. “And the science that’s being promulgated is incredible.”

Epstein has a longstanding yoga practice that included teaching classes in Albuquerque after he and his wife, Jane Loubier Epstein, attended a monthlong training program in Massachusetts.

And he has a deep interest in team sports, which includes a stint on a competitive Ultimate Frisbee team in Albuquerque that played in places like Boulder, Colorado, and San Diego.

“It was called Anarchy,” he says. “I became captain, and then we recognized it wasn’t a good fit. You don’t lead a team called Anarchy.”

His love of baseball was capped by this experience: Throwing out the first pitch when the Tampa Bay Rays played the Yankees in a home game. His nephew is president of the team, and the ball has had an honored spot in Epstein’s office ever since.

“It was for my 50th birthday. When the Yankees come to town, their attendance skyrockets, so there was a whole crowd, and I got to throw out the first pitch. (It was) a highlight of my life.”

What was the New Zealand experience like?

“It was just a great opportunity. Now, I’ll tell you, I learned more about American medicine by practicing in a different country. They have national health care, and they have private sector care there as well. It was interesting – all the intricacies and complexities of our system and how it did or did not translate into their system. It was just a study of comparative art, almost.”

In what ways?

“Whether you’re talking about a national health system versus a highly privatized health system, it still comes down to how you allocate your health care resources. Those are difficult decisions because there are limited resources and huge demand, if not sometimes infinite demand. So you can’t escape that fundamental difficult decision-making, no matter what system you have. I would say the Kiwis (New Zealand residents), overall, being a smaller country, it’s … more of an egalitarian approach. Here’s an analogy I’ve alluded to before. If a bunch of Kiwis went on an expedition to climb a mountain, as you’re hiking up, nobody would run too far up ahead, but nobody would be left behind. They wouldn’t let anybody run too far ahead. The Americans would do it differently. On a positive note, they would celebrate if even just one person made it to the top, but they would let people fall behind as well. There’s less of a sense of collective in the U.S. health care system than there is in New Zealand. It (the health care system) reflects your country’s values.”

How do you spend your free time?

“I swim, I bike, I run. My wife and I really like to travel. We got the bug of just different cultures and different places. For example, my oldest, Gavin … spent a semester in Beijing, so my wife and I went at the end of the semester. It was totally a blast and not only that, we had our son as an interpreter. It was just rich, rich, rich.”

What are your favorite places?

“I loved China, Hong Kong, Paris. I love the outdoors, so we do a lot of outdoor travel, too. Mountain biking, skiing. I like Montreal. I love New Zealand, obviously. I love Mexico City, too.”

Did you make New Year’s resolutions?

“I don’t. However, I’ve got to say, in my yoga practice, it’s about daily setting an intention, how I want to be in the world. And that’s about, ‘OK, fear’s here. Fear can be helpful. Use it when you need to, but we’re going to move through … with power and agency and get stuff done.'”

Do you have any pet peeves?

“What gets me is when people approach challenging situations with a cloak of victimhood. There may be legitimate reasons in certain circumstances for that, but I just so want people to have a feeling of agency and empowerment that they bring to the situation that taking that victim stance gets under my skin. Because, you know, when someone takes the victim stance, I’m often put in the role of the victimizer. We’re humans here on the same plane, so let’s figure it out.”

What’s the most fulfilling thing you’ve ever done?

“Being a parent. I have two great kids and one of life’s lessons – you’re never done being a parent. Hugely fulfilling, hugely challenging. The mirror’s right in front of your face, so if you want to feel like you’re alive …”

What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten?
“Breathe, relax, you’re doing great.”

Do you have a mentor that stands out?
“Oh, well, my father comes to mind. He passed away in 2015. While he had his own struggles and had a difficult childhood in Detroit growing up, the values came through clearly: Be good to people. Have integrity and move through the world in a way that leaves the world a better place. That came through resolutely. And everything else is a bonus.”

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