CEO Dr. Vitka Eisen is an SF Chronicle Visionary of the Year Nominee

Recovered heroin addict goes full circle to serve huge community

By Victoria Colliver

January 30, 2016

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Three decades ago, Vitka Eisen was a heroin addict, but she knew from the start she needed to find a way to quit.

“I just wasn’t very good at it,” she said. “Even though I was completely hooked on heroin, I spent the whole time thinking I’ve got to get off of this.”

Her decision to finally kick the habit for good turned her life in a direction she probably didn’t anticipate and proved fortuitous for a large underserved community of people in need of substance abuse, medical and mental health intervention.

It led her to Walden House, a longtime residential treatment center in San Francisco where she entered the organization’s two-year treatment program, completing it in 1987.

Today, Eisen, who is a finalist for The Chronicle’s second annual Visionary of the Year award, leads HealthRight 360, a nonprofit health provider created in 2011 by a merger of Walden House and the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic. The previous year, she had been named the first and only Walden House graduate to serve as its chief executive officer.

Under her leadership, the new organization has expanded its depth and range of services for underserved people, taking under its umbrella other health organizations in the Bay Area and throughout California. HealthRight 360 offers primary care, mental health and substance abuse services using programs sensitive to its patients’ languages, ethnicities, genders, sexual identities and cultures.

Insider’s perspective

Barbara Garcia, director of health at the San Francisco Department of Public Health, described Eisen’s leadership as “rooted in her commitment to communities that face profound prejudice and stigma.”

“She knows that those suffering from mental illness and addiction can recover and live healthy lives. It is this vision that drives her every day,” Garcia said.

The personal struggles that brought Eisen to Walden House give her credibility, said journalist, author and broadcaster Ben Fong-Torres, who nominated Eisen for the Visionary award.

“She’s not some outside recruited talent who has come in to run this health organization,” Fong-Torres said. “She benefited from the early version of Walden House and is committed to doing for others what has been done for her.”

Eisen’s history doesn’t entirely define her, but it makes for a compelling backstory.

A self-described middle-class Jew from the Bronx, Eisen dabbled early in marijuana and prescription drugs. She managed to maintain high enough grades to go to college but eventually graduated to using heroin and dropped out. After finding her way to San Francisco, she tried seven times to overcome her heroin addiction before landing at Walden House.

Free from her addiction, Eisen finished her undergraduate degree at New College and then attended San Francisco State University, where she received her master’s degree in social work. Encouraged by a professor there, she applied to Harvard to get a doctorate in education and surprised herself by getting in. Before she could complete her dissertation, Walden House recruited her to run one of its programs, and, in 2010, she was named its chief executive officer.

Overseeing growth

Under her leadership, HealthRight 360 has nearly doubled its annual budget and now serves more than 27,000 people a year. It has acquired organizations in the Bay Area and other parts of California, particularly those in financial distress or struggling under administrative burdens.

Eisen, 56, visibly bristles when people, even in jest, refer to the organization as an “empire,” but acknowledges that her vision all along has been to expand HealthRight 360’s services.

Its programs include Asian American Recovery Services, which operates in San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties; Women’s Recovery Association in San Mateo; North County Serenity House in San Diego County; San Francisco’s Lyon-Martin Health Services, which specializes in providing health care to women and transgender people; and Rock Medicine, which has been providing care at music events in Northern California for four decades.

HealthRight 360 also offers treatment to inmates at three state prisons and last year agreed to operate Glide’s health clinic, now renamed Tenderloin Health Services.

The organization plans next year to move its primary care, mental health and substance abuse services into a five-story 50,000-square-foot building it purchased at 1563 Mission St. Lyon-Martin Health Services will move into HealthRight 360’s current leased 34,000-square-foot building just two blocks away.

Eisen credited the Affordable Care Act with helping to financially stabilize the organization’s clinics by expanding Medicaid programs to poor people, often single men with no dependents, who previously could not qualify for benefits.

“Overnight, the percentage of clients who had a source of payment for medical services went from 10 percent to 80 percent,” she said.

Growing need for services

But demand for HealthRight 360’s services continues to increase, she said. “Over the years, our clients are sicker, they have many more complex health challenges, more co-occurring mental health conditions and fewer resources,” she said.

Eisen, 56, is married to Rachel Sing, whom she met as a graduate student at Harvard, and the two are raising three children in Berkeley.

It’s been decades since she recovered from her addiction, but her experience still helps her to see beyond the substance abuse or the mental health issues of the people who come to her clinics.

“They’re somebody’s child. They’re somebody’s mother,” she said. “When we look at them … we see the person they were before.”

Victoria Colliver is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: vcolliver@sfchronicle.comTwitter: @vcolliver

Visionary of the Year award

This is one of eight profiles of nominees for The Chronicle’s second annual Visionary of the Year award, which is presented in collaboration with St. Mary’s College’s School of Economics and Business Administration. The honor salutes leaders who strive to make the world a better place and drive social and economic change by employing new, innovative business models and practices. The eight finalists were nominated by a distinguished committee that included Evan Marwell, CEO and co-founder of the nonprofit group Education SuperHighway; Pam Baer, founder and CEO of For Goodness Sake, a nonprofit foundation that created an e-commerce site to connect consumers with curated brands and nonprofits; Ron Conway, an angel investor and philanthropist; Ben Fong-Torres, a noted rock journalist, author and broadcaster; Pamela Joyner, founder of the strategic marketing consulting company Avid Partners LLC; Zhan Li, dean of St. Mary’s School of Economics and Business Administration; and John Diaz, The Chronicle’s editorial page editor.

Chronicle Publisher Jeff Johnson, Editor in Chief Audrey Cooper and Diaz will select the winner, who will be announced during a March 29 ceremony.

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