Tom Coble
Talk to any staff member about their position in a skilled nursing care center or assisted living community and eventually someone will say: “This is my calling.” Some care professionals can easily trace their passion for caregiving to their childhood or personal experiences, saying that they “always knew” that caring for the elderly was their “mission in life.”
For Tom Coble, that calling came as a surprise. After spending 15 years in the oil and gas business, Coble seized an opportunity to purchase a local skilled nursing center with a longtime friend, and he’s never looked back.
Before taking up the helm at Elmbrook Home, a skilled nursing, long term care, and rehabilitation center in Ardmore, Okla., Coble had only been in a care center twice in his life: once when his uncle needed care in the mid 1970s and again in the 1980s, when his father required care.
It wasn’t until 1993 that Coble walked into a care center with a new mission.
“On Feb. 28, 1993, I was wrapping things up in my office I had occupied for years, and then on March 1, there I was in long term care,” says Coble. “I had so much to learn. I realized then that I didn’t truly know what a nursing care center really was.”

Rising To The Top

Finding his passion, Coble quickly dove in, learning as much as possible. He expanded Elmbrook’s capabilities to better serve the residents and a few years later opened an assisted living center. He later grew the company even further to become Elmbrook Management Co., which currently owns and operates seven long term care and assisted living communities in southern Oklahoma.

It was an exciting time for Coble, who quickly rose through the ranks of health care leadership in his home state of Oklahoma, an achievement he credits to the residents he helped care for at Elmbrook.

“I learned so much from the families that we cared for, and I still apply this day in and day out. I’ve learned from not only the members of my family but the families of my friends and all the people that helped raise me in the community,” says Coble.

Coble joined the Oklahoma Association of Health Care Providers (OAHCP), where he served two terms as president of the board. He has had several state-level legislative appointments to health-related task forces, councils, and other boards.

“It’s humbling to reach a point where people consider you to be one of the leaders of the long term and post-acute care profession,” he says.

Soon after, Coble became involved with the American Health Care Association (AHCA), where he served as chair of the Independent Owners Council and member of various committees, including the Board of Governors in 2011.

As the current chair of the board completing his first-year term, Coble says that his passion has driven him to continue the work of previous AHCA leaders, with a renewed focus on enhancing quality and developing new reimbursement models.

“It’s important for our profession to understand that we’re at the crossroads where quality and reimbursement will meet,” says Coble. “This is a sea change.” In AHCA circles and back in Oklahoma, Coble is known for his out-of-the-box thinking on payment models. He founded his own business offering Medicare Advantage plans, which has allowed him to serve both residents in care centers and those in the community.

“Tom has a special expertise in new payment models, and to have a chair who is one of the leading reimbursement experts in the country is invaluable,” says Mark Parkinson, president and chief executive officer of AHCA and the National Center for Assisted Living.

Another cornerstone of Coble’s mission as chair of AHCA is to continue to enhance the association’s relationship with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. “With that comes the important work of enhancing regulations with survey and certification,” Coble says.

A Strong Advocate

When asked about what he’s enjoyed the most as AHCA chair, Coble says, quite simply, it’s the people.

“The interactions with other states and experts have been really phenomenal. We’ve all learned so much from each other, and all those inter-workings support our profession,” Coble says. “I’ve made lifelong friends here.”

“Tom is a great leader for our profession, and we’ve learned a lot from the great work he’s done not only for the residents at Elmbrook, but for elders in Oklahoma,” Parkinson says.

Fellow board member David Norsworthy, vice president of strategic planning at Central Arkansas Nursing Centers,  also praises Coble’s steady leadership.

“At a time when the profession is facing so many unknowns on the legislative and regulatory horizons, it’s reassuring to have Tom at the helm,” says Norsworthy. “His steady leadership is appreciated and welcome. We have a strong advocate who knows provider needs so well.”

When asked what those outside the profession should know, Coble says “It’s incredibly important to continue to make the public aware of the importance of long term care within the community and how it affects the health outcomes of our society as we age.”

Expanding The LTC Center Role

Later this month, Coble will take this message and his passion for caregiving overseas, where he will participate as a speaker and panelist at the 6th Annual Retirement Living World in Shanghai, China.

Coble will present on the role of the long term care center in population management in an aging society.

“It’s about integrating the medical model [long term care] with the social model [home- and community-based services],” says Coble. “What it comes down to is the care center becomes a place to serve both the residents in the center and the elderly in the community by offering services such as Meals on Wheels and wellness checks. We call this concept, Nursing Home Without Walls.”

Several in Coble’s family are involved with the Elmbrook community. “When my son Brett was little he pitched in to help by washing dishes, mopping floors, and doing laundry,” says Coble. “My daughter, Meghann, spent time helping my wife, Kim, in the assisted living community.”

Today, Brett oversees operations at Elmbrook and Meghann is completing her master’s degree, with plans to be a nurse practitioner. Coble’s mother resides in the assisted living community and will turn 82 in November.

Above all, the experiences that have had the biggest impact on Coble have been with the residents of Elmbrook.
“There are so many that have touched our lives over the years,” he says.

Memories That Stay

Coble recalls a young resident who had moved into the center with his grandmother back in the 1960s, residing there for years. He filled the Coke machines every day and delivered the papers to everyone, making sure residents received their mail.

“I called him the Governor of Elmbrook. He knew so much,” says Coble. Once the young resident left, people complained that the Coke machines were empty and papers didn’t get delivered on time. “I really learned from him that the little things matter and can make people happy.”

Another memorable resident was a World War I bride from France. When Coble introduced her to a French physician visiting the Elmbrook while studying geriatrics, the physician began speaking to the resident in French.

“The look on her face stayed with me for years. I’ll never forget that. She made a connection,” says Coble.

“We’re working in a history book,” Coble says. “The people we care for may not always remember what happened 10 minutes ago, but they can remember just about everything that happened 80 years ago.”

Amy Mendoza is managing editor of Provider magazine.