Local News

February 8, 2014

‘Intelligence and personability’

Kennedy to step down from healthcare partnership after 20 years

During the past 20 years, the Northwest Georgia Healthcare Partnership has racked up many successes, from founding MedBank and helping bring the Partnership Health Center to Dalton to increasing awareness of the dangers of smoking and obesity.

Executive Director Nancy Kennedy recalls the agency had to build those successes from the ground up.

“When I started at the healthcare partnership, I sat down at an empty desk,” she said. “I opened up the drawers and they were empty. There were no files, no programs, no plans. We had nothing to model ourselves on. We had nothing but opportunity.”

Kennedy, who said last week she will retire at the end of June, said that was quite a change from what she was used to.

“I’d spent 20-some-odd years working in the for-profit world,” she said. “I’d started volunteering for United Way. I’d go back to my job saying, ‘That really feels good. I enjoy that,’” she said. “I said to my husband, ‘I could do this all day long.’ Finally, he said, ‘Why don’t you get a job with an organization like that?’”

Kennedy soon joined the United Way of Northwest Georgia full time as campaign director.

“I was there for two years and was very happy. I had the time of my life,” she said.

At about the time Kennedy joined the United Way, a group of local leaders founded the partnership to work to improve both health and health care in Whitfield and Murray counties. By 1994, they decided they needed someone working at the partnership full time.

“Anytime you are starting something from scratch, you need an entrepreneur,” said Dalton Mayor David Pennington, one of the partnership’s founding co-chairmen.

“Finding a not-for-profit entrepreneur is very, very difficult,” Pennington said. “Nancy had no health care background. But we talked to several candidates, and after talking to Nancy, we knew we’d found our entrepreneur.”

Kennedy said she wasn’t too sure at first about taking the post.

“My first response was, ‘No, I’m happy where I am.’ They said, ‘Well, we’ve got some material about what we are and what we plan to do. Will you read it?’” she said.

Kennedy got a thick packet of material. She said as she began reading it, she couldn’t put it down.

“It was so exciting. The whole idea was to transform this community, not just health care,” she said. “The focus was on encouraging healthy lifestyles and doing things that have never been done before, not just here in Whitfield and Murray counties, but anywhere. I was also impressed by the board they had put together. I knew that with a group of that caliber, they were going to make that vision come true.”

Kennedy came on board, but quickly found things were quite different than working at the United Way.

“The United Way is a nationwide organization. If I had a question or a problem, I could call just about anywhere in the nation where there was a city about the same size as Dalton and find someone else who was working on that or had worked their way through it,” she said. “At the healthcare partnership, we were breaking new ground.”

She said they were fortunate to get a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. They were just one of 20 organizations chosen to take part in the National Community Care Network Demonstration Program. Two years later, the foundation chose the partnership as one of eight of those communities to receive additional funding.

“Having that funding and that network of communities really helped us,” Kennedy said.

She said the partnership’s work has evolved over the years as the community’s health care needs have changed.

“We are not a traditional nonprofit with a lot of programs that we do over and over,” she said. “We are more of a think tank or a facilitator. We try to determine the needs and gaps of the community and identify a solution.”

For instance, in 2003, the federal government passed Medicare Part D, the prescription drug program for seniors,. Kennedy said many seniors had trouble choosing the right plan for their coverage. So the partnership set up a program with trained volunteers to guide them through the process. After seniors became more comfortable with the program and more sources of information opened up, the partnership saw the program was no longer needed and let it lapse.

The partnership also started the Whitfield County MedBank, which helps people who lack prescription drug coverage and who fall below a certain income level get access to prescription drugs. The drugs are provided free by drug companies under their prescription assistance programs, but many people are unaware of those programs or may not be able to work their way through the paperwork.

The partnership funded MedBank for a couple of years, demonstrating its value. After that the Whitfield County Health Department took over its operations.

“Nancy is very smart,” said Whitfield County Board of Commissioners Chairman Mike Babb, who is also a member of the partnership board.

“She always makes sure to make herself knowledgeable about whatever subject she is working on,” Babb said. “She is also very personable, able to relate to and work with all sorts of people. Those two things — intelligence and personability — don’t always go together. And it’s that combination that has made her so effective.”

Kennedy said one of the things she’s most proud of is the Partnership Health Center, which opened in the Mack Gaston Community Center two years ago. The center is operated by Georgia Mountains Health, which runs health centers across north Georgia. But the partnership brought Georgia Mountains Health and the city of Dalton together and worked with them to secure funding for the center.

“We worked really, really hard, and I think that’s going to make a big difference for this community,” she said.

Kennedy was diagnosed with cancer on one of her tonsils last year and went through a “brutal” regimen of treatment. She’s cancer-free and in remission now, but she said the experience led her to examine her priorities.

“During my treatment, I would sometimes talk about retirement. (Her husband) Dave would always redirect the conversation back to recovery,” she said. “But after I truly got better I started thinking things over and decided it was time I started spending more time with my family. I’ve always loved to travel, and I hope to do that. I’ve always had an interest in training service dogs, and I’d like to get involved with that. I’ve got a lot of plans.”

Dalton Public Schools Superintendent Jim Hawkins, chairman of the partnership’s board, said the board has already posted the opening and put together a search committee. He said they will continue to advertise until around the middle of March, then start interviewing candidates.

“In the perfect world, we’ll have someone here by the middle of May, so there is a four- or six-week transition period,” he said. “We are very sorry to see Nancy step down. She has been the heart and soul and head of the partnership for 20 years. But we understand her reasons, and we know that she is very committed to this community and to the partnership. She’ll still be around and still be a great supporter to both.”

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