Empath Health’s new President & CEO began serving the organization to give back and honor a special member of his family.
Once he got involved, though, it was inevitable that Jonathan Fleece would one day chart a course for expanding Empath’s mission and vision.
“The more I saw the incredible impact and the service we provide and the outcomes we can achieve in helping people through the Full Life Care continuum, it’s so fulfilling, rewarding and meaningful. That’s my life’s work, to lead the organization and help more people. I just want to keep having a bigger and bigger impact,” Fleece said.
“Our mission is much more than a healthcare business. Our mission is truly transformational for people. The more you dive into that mission and become a part of it, it’s awe-inspiring.”
Fleece, who assumed the reins of the nation’s largest not-for-profit hospice and home care company in January, was called to service from an early age as the son of a minister and nurse. He spent nearly 25 years as a healthcare attorney and consultant. His 2011 book “The New Health Age: The Future of Healthcare in America” with futurist David Houle introduced Fleece as a national expert in the healthcare business.
But it was a personal tragedy that put Fleece on a path to Empath Health. During the early stages of his career Fleece and his wife, Amy, suffered the death of their first child, Catherine “Katie” Bette, due to a heart defect. The Fleeces participated in hospice bereavement services as they learned to cope with the loss. They now have three adult children.
After Fleece joined the Blalock Walters law firm in Bradenton and Sarasota, he volunteered to serve on the Tidewell Hospice Board of Trustees. Fleece spent 10 years on the boards of Tidewell and parent company Stratum Health System before accepting the job as Tidewell and Stratum President and CEO in 2018.
It was his way of repaying hospice for the care it extended him.
“It certainly fit my life’s work as a healthcare professional and leader. It aligned with my personal journey, and it aligned with my love for the organization,” Fleece said. “Tidewell became a place where I could turn my sadness into hope and serving others.”
Fleece was the Empath Health President alongside former Empath CEO Rafael J. Sciullo after the merger between Stratum and Empath in December 2020. Sciullo retired in January 2023 after a decade leading Empath.
The period since the merger has been marked by change, growth and unprecedented challenges. It made Fleece’s preparation to become CEO incredibly eventful.
“Life is what happens when you’re making other plans sometimes,” he said. “None of us could have predicted a global pandemic. I don’t think people expected the runaway inflationary impact that the pandemic sparked, massive workforce challenges, then a Cat. 4 hurricane. We have been focused on fulfilling our missions despite all these opportunities and all these challenges.”
Fleece said he will use the Empath vision of “redefining healthcare as Full Life Care” that emphasizes helping people access and navigate the healthcare system and mission of being “united in empathy,” both of which he had a hand in articulating, as his guiding principles. The organization prioritizes the implementation of a Care Navigation system and maintaining its status as a workplace of choice, he said.
Since the merger, Empath has enjoyed tremendous growth, adding hospice and home health programs that have expanded its footprint throughout Florida. Growth will continue at Empath, though Fleece said an important initiative on his agenda will be to integrate legacy hospices Tidewell and Suncoast with the new Suncoast Hospice of Hillsborough, Hospice of Marion County and budding services in Polk, Hardee and Highlands counties.
Of course, Empath Health is much more than hospice. Empath’s integrated network of care provides expert medical, counseling and support services including home health, palliative care, grief services, all-inclusive elder care, HIV/STI prevention services and support, primary care and physician services.
“Organizations are doing one of two things. They’re either growing or they’re shrinking. Shrinking is not an option. I think we will always be growing. We will be focused on smart growth. We won’t be growing for growth’s sake,” Fleece said.
To read more about Empath Health’s mission, vision and values, visit EmpathHealth.org/About-Empath-Health.