John Von Arb Values Flexibility and Growth at Essentia Health

About one-fifth of the US population live in rural areas. On average, those residents generally have worse health conditions than their urban counterparts. But while they may require more medical attention, they might have limited access to care.

As someone who grew up on a farm in a rural part of the Midwest, John Von Arb understands this very well. That’s why after spending two decades in the hospital and healthcare industry gaining expertise on analytics, benefits, coaching, compensation, negotiation, and team building, he was drawn to Essentia Health. Headquartered in Duluth, Minnesota, Essentia is an integrated health system that primarily serves rural patients and communities across Minnesota, Wisconsin, and North Dakota.

When Von Arb became vice president of total rewards in 2020, he says it was an opportunity “to make a healthy difference in the lives of others.” 

“Essentia is a mission-driven and values organization that’s committed to delivering quality care to the rural parts of the country, and I’m proud to play a part in that in my role,” the HR executive says.

John Von Arb Essentia Health
Photo by Derek Montgomery

As the head of Essentia’s total rewards function, Von Arb oversees compensation, employee benefits, and employee health. In addition to his focus on strategy and plan design, he spends his time collaborating with population health and ACO operations teams to deliver quality care directly to the system’s ten thousand plan members.

From rolling out clinical and chronic disease management programs to rethinking compensation structures and pharmacy operations, there have been no shortage of highlights from Von Arb’s tenure at Essentia. However, some of the work he’s most proud of came out of the COVID-19 pandemic when he helped support Essentia’s first remote-work strategy.

“When COVID hit, our administrative staff was working from home, but most of those individuals were local and had been going into the office for most of their work hours,” Von Arb says. “But as we recruited talent outside of our typical markets, we added flexibility to our health plan structure for those employees to access care wherever it made sense for them.”

That strategy underscores a shift that Von Arb has witnessed since getting into healthcare leadership decades ago. Before the pandemic, when leaders could walk down administrative hallways and see who was in their office, it was “more about being present rather than the work produced,” he says. That’s why he believes the shift to remote work has brought important benefits to him and his team.

Essentia Health System: By the Numbers

15,500 employees

2,350 physicians and advanced practitioners

14 hospitals

78 clinics

24 retail pharmacies

7 ambulance services

6 long-term care facilities

6 assisted living and independent living facilities

1 research institute

“Today my leadership style has been more driven by the work that’s getting completed,” he says. “I’m flexible on when you do your work as long as we can continue to support the folks that we’re supporting like our operations team, physicians, and clinicians. If we’re getting our work done and you have some childcare issues, let’s work around that and figure it out.”

As a leader, Von Arb also values the development of his team and spends time providing them greater visibility in the organization.

“We have a lot of town hall meetings and all-colleague updates and most of those topics I delegate to my staff to deliver,” Von Arb says. “It engages them with the rest of our staff, so they get to know those individuals. If I have one of my managers who’s able to deliver a message as well as I can, then it’s important for them to get that exposure. It’s about giving them stretch goals and stretch assignments to get them out of their comfort zone.”

After getting a degree in mathematics and physics from Northwestern College in Iowa, Von Arb started his career at WTW, where he worked in benefit consulting, before transitioning to a mergers and acquisitions role at HCA Healthcare. Next was a position as benefits manager at PhyCor and vice president of compensation and benefits at LifePoint Hospitals. From there, he developed a deep expertise in total rewards, HR leadership, and analytics at the likes of Nissan North America, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Ardent Health Services, RCCH HealthCare Partners, and EnduraCare Acute Care Services.

John Von Arb Essentia Health
Photo by Derek Montgomery

Outside of work, he has focused on participating in mission-driven organizations. One of them is the Make-A-Wish Middle Tennessee foundation, where he has served on the executive board committee. He has also served on committees for the National Business Group on Health, where he’s given presentations on ACO and population health topics—areas that he’s particularly passionate about.

“Just providing healthcare doesn’t do it,” Von Arb says. “We’ve got to be able to give our employees and our members of these plans an opportunity to improve their lives and we need to focus on how we do that.”

Empower is a financial services company on a mission to help people achieve the financial freedom they deserve. We work with individuals and all sizes of organizations to offer investment, wealth management and retirement solutions, including numerous healthcare retirement plan sponsors. With a constant commitment to growth, innovation, and technology, we are fully dedicated to transforming the lives of all Americans. Our personalized tools and solutions are aimed at helping everyone improve their financial confidence so they can pursue their amazing passions and reach their unique goals. Find out more at

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