As part of an ongoing budget request to the Douglas County Commission for $227,003, representatives from Heartland Community Health Center shared plans Wednesday for their new facility, efforts toward inclusivity and search for a new CEO.
Heartland in recent years has seen turnover in leadership, at times declining to answer questions regarding who was at the organization’s helm, but that has not slowed its expansion.
Heartland announced plans to merge with Health Care Access, Lawrence’s only other safety-net clinic, in October 2017. Just a month after that merger was finalized, in March 2018, the center’s board announced that it was suspending the CEO pending an independent audit, the results of which were never released to the public.
The center’s most recent CEO, Robyn Coventon, was hired in February 2019 and left in February of this year, Heartland staff told commissioners on Wednesday — though the center’s board had not announced her departure until late April.
Julie Boden Schmidt, who had served as interim CEO for some time prior to Coventon’s hiring, resumed that role.
Douglas County Commissioner Patrick Kelly asked Boden Schmidt during the county’s June budget hearings about the pattern of changes in executive leadership. At that time, Boden Schmidt said there “certainly were problems with the last CEO, and she was finally asked to leave by the board.” On Wednesday, however, she said she had “made some off-the-cuff remarks” that were ill-informed because she had been caught off-guard by Kelly’s question.
In addition, Tiffany Lewis, who was serving Heartland as chief operations officer, left her position in May. Commissioners, community members and executive leadership of the Lawrence chapter of the NAACP have questioned the circumstances around Lewis’ departure.
NAACP leaders wrote in a media release in June that they had seen Heartland’s services improve during Lewis’ tenure, and that “To hear that her work has been terminated is very disturbing and requires immediate explanation from Heartland.” They also questioned the center’s commitment to health equity and inclusion.
Heartland has played a key role in the county’s behavioral health initiatives; it merged with Douglas County Dental Clinic in August 2020; it acquired Panda Pediatrics in January 2021; and it’s set to open its new clinical site on Monday, Oct. 25.
The new site, 1312 W. Sixth St., includes 36 primary care exam rooms, six behavioral health rooms, and a dental wing. It will also include a food pantry and a pharmacy with a drive-thru window, which will open in January 2022. Staff at the center will also be required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
Chief Development Officer Julie Branstrom clarified that although the center will combine many resources into one facility, the doubling in capacity at the new facility is only in terms of space, not of providers.
“Community health centers are designed to sort of address that fragmentation that exists within healthcare by bringing all of these disciplines of primary and preventive healthcare needs under one roof,” Branstrom said. “… It will be a beautiful space for our patients to seek care, and honestly, it will provide them with the dignity and respect that they deserve.”
Boden Schmidt said the eight-member executive team is an “extremely strong team” and that it will seek out a CEO that works well with community partners.
When Commission Chair Shannon Portillo asked how the leadership team will reflect the people it serves, including people from communities of color and marginalized communities, Boden Schmidt said the three newest board members are People of Color. She also said the center has hired a consultant, Crystal Bennett, to move the center toward equity and inclusion.
“We are still a more white board and we are still a more white executive team,” she said. “We are now starting, as of this week, an 18-month journey that is going to include the executive team, the management team, frontline staff and the board to move us not to the point of competency, but to really be responsive and recognize our own biases and mitigate that in our organization.”
Brad Koehler, chair of the board of directors, reiterated that 51% of the board members have to be consumers of Heartland services. This is important, he said, because they have the firsthand perspective of how the center’s services and policies will impact its clients.
The board’s CEO recruitment committee is currently putting together a list of qualities the CEO should have as a key stakeholder in the community, he said, with the help of insight from community partners.
“The base of all of this is, how can we better serve the people that come to us for care?” Koehler said. “… We’ve been put in positions where the face of Heartland is changing right now. Those that look to us for care have never had to look for that. They’ve never had to ask for help. The people that we once served 10 years ago when we opened as a care facility here in Lawrence is very different than today.”
No action was taken during the work session, but a formal budget request may come before the commission as a future agenda item.
Plinsky told Heartland staff that she’d like more clarity around how the acquisition of Panda Pediatrics fits into Heartland’s revenue generation before the 2022 budget process. She also noted that she’d like to see more demographic information, to include actual numbers, about the center’s staff, clients, and leadership.
Citing concerns she’d heard about Heartland, Commission Vice Chair Shannon Reid recommended that Heartland remove the use of gendered language and prioritize using a patient’s chosen first name when relevant.
Kelly thanked Heartland representatives for sharing their willingness to reflect on and try to improve their practices.
“In a way, our responsibility is almost over a quarter of a million dollars,” Kelly said. “I think we really have an expectation to those who have put their trust in us to make sure how we allocate those dollars to organizations, and that those organizations are being good partners. I think that was really our hope.”
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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.