CLINIC PARTNER SPOTLIGHT – Edward M. Kennedy Community Health Center (Mass.)
MAVEN Project brings specialty care to provider fingertips at Kennedy Community Health
In 1972, seven women living in public housing founded the Edward M. Kennedy Community Health Center (Kennedy Community Health) to create better access to health care for their community. Since then, the clinic has grown to 10 Massachusetts locations serving more than 32,000 patients.
Roughly nine out of 10 of their patients are low income and one in three are uninsured, and Kennedy Community Health offers everything from primary and urgent care to maternity care, optometry and behavioral health services. Kennedy Community Health also boasts Central Massachusetts’ largest dental practice that accepts MassHealth.
And for the last three years, providers at Kennedy Community Health have benefitted from the support of MAVEN Project’s expert physician volunteers.
“It’s so hard to get our patients in to see a specialist,” shared Pablo I. Hernandez Itriago, M.D., chief medical officer at Kennedy Community Health. “We’re the community’s safety net and with MAVEN Project we can start treatment and be confident in doing so. And MAVEN Project’s mentorship offerings are especially beneficial for our newer providers. Having a mentor can help them adjust in what can be a challenging environment.”
With guidance from MAVEN Project, Dr. Hernandez Itriago was able to reassure a patient who had a cancer history and developed new symptoms that might have signaled a reoccurrence. After connecting with a MAVEN Project volunteer, Dr. Hernandez Itriago confirmed it was not cancer.
“It’s specialty care at our fingertips,” he added. “Providers are supported, patients feel taken care of. It’s a solution that works right away instead of waiting weeks or months to be seen.”
Anna McMahan, M.D., medical director at Kennedy Community Health, uses MAVEN Project frequently to make sense of abnormal lab results or radiology that lands in a grey zone.
“I reach out to MAVEN Project volunteers when I reach the limit of what I know,” Dr. McMahan added. “It’s really wonderful to have an expert clarify what to do next. And their consults are so customized for each case that I know exactly how to counsel the patient. It can take weeks or months for a patient to be seen by a local specialist, and this helps to fill the gap. It’s really a fantastic service.”
In the three months following the May 2020 police murder of George Floyd, the number of diversity, equity, and inclusion-related job openings surged 55% in the U.S., according to employment website Glassdoor, as businesses scrambled to respond to a national reckoning on race.
Yet, as openings for DEI directors and chief diversity officers sprung up, Edward M. Kennedy Community Health Center in Worcester was not among them.
Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Edward M. Kennedy Community Health Center
Sedruola “Sedie” Maruska joins Kennedy Community Health as the Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, bringing with her a wealth of knowledge and experience in creating equitable and inclusive workspaces. Maruska’s time in both the business and nonprofit sector has equipped her with the organizational support skills integral to creating a cohesive and welcoming workspace. She has developed curriculum and workshops focused on addressing bias, racial sensitivity, equity & inclusion.
Until recently, it wasn’t unusual for transgender patients to wait weeks or even months for an appointment at Worcester’s Edward M. Kennedy Community Health Center.
“When we got calls from trans folks, it would be just me trying to figure out when I could see them,” said Dr. Anna McMahan, who had been the sole PCP treating transgender patients since she joined Kennedy in 2016. Patients’ only other option would have been traveling to the Boston or Springfield areas for gender-affirming healthcare such as hormone replacement therapy or behavioral and surgery referrals.
After two years of work, Kennedy Community Health Center launched its new Transgender Health Team this past October.
“There was a real dearth of trans care in Central Massachusetts,” said McMahan, one of the main healthcare providers.
Worcesterite Jake Dziejma agreed — he currently travels to a trans health center in Western Massachusetts, over an hour away. “For a city that touts itself as being the second largest in New England, it can be really challenging to simply find competent care as a trans person,” he said, adding that a local option for healthcare would be welcomed by the trans community.
The team currently consists of McMahan and two other main primary care providers, as well as a registered nurse, a community health worker and a medical assistant. As patient numbers continue to rise, the team in turn will keep expanding to absorb the growing caseload. According to McMahan, the support of a dedicated staff has made a night and day difference.
Now, when a patient calls, they can reach the team through a phone line going directly to registered nurse Sarah Caplette and Community Health Worker Claire Powell. While it may seem minor, such a change breaks down yet another barrier to gender affirming healthcare. “Patients don’t have to continuously out themselves,” said Caplette, as they go through various phone transfers before actually reaching their PCP.
About two years ago, McMahan began lobbying for greater support for transgender affirming care, rather than handling each on a case by case basis. “We can see that when people don’t get gender affirming care, they have worse health outcomes overall,” said McMahan.
The mission of Kennedy Community Health Center is to specifically help those who are marginalized and would not otherwise receive the care they need. With that in mind, McMahan argued that the clinic had a responsibility to do something. “I was able to go to the leadership team and say ‘look, this is a group of people who have worse health outcomes and we can help with that.’”
Clinic leadership readily agreed, having long been committed to LGBTQ+ healthcare, and work began in earnest to build the new initiative into the budget. In fact, Kennedy Community Health Center has earned a top score as a LGBTQ+ Healthcare Equality Leader in the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Health Equity Index for the last five years. It is the only healthcare provider in Central Massachusetts to receive this designation.
Fast-forward to the present day, and “it’s going gangbusters,” said McMahan happily. The rise in patient numbers, she said, doesn’t necessarily represent a demographic change so much as a cultural one.
“It’s not that there are more trans people now than there ever were, but a slightly improved comfort level in being able to say that out loud,” she said. “Still a long way to go but better than it has been historically.”
Worcester resident Maeve Perry is not surprised that Kennedy has seen a rise in patients – and agreed with McMahan’s analysis that more people are able to live visibly. Perry likened it to the stigma that used to surround left-handed students in schools, as teachers forced them to use their right hands. “Once the restriction was lifted, the number of left-handed people shot up in the short term” before stabilizing, she said. A similar phenomenon could be happening with gender identity, aided by the pandemic encouraging self reflection and social media helping spread educational information. “Numbers are bound to go up.”
However, Dziejma emphasized that acceptance — while essential — is only half the battle. “Trans people need to know that healthcare centers are, one, not hostile and, two, that they actually have the medical knowledge to back that up,” said Dziejma, who had just changed PCPs because “while providers were good people, they didn’t have specific trans knowledge.”
Perry believes that hormone replacement therapy is relatively under-researched, which contributes to a lack of knowledgeable specialists. One HRT clinic she reached out to had only one doctor who could write the necessary prescriptions for adults.
Kennedy Health Center did not lack for knowledgeable staff, and brought them in from other parts of the organization, beginning with Caplette and Powell. While Caplette handles all medical aspects, as a CHW, Powell deals with non-medical issues that could directly affect a patient’s health.
“Everybody who is a CHW is going to have a different definition of what that is,” said Powell, who explained that she works with the social aspects surrounding trans affirming healthcare, such as housing, food as well as “a lot of really specific bureaucratic aspects that affect trans folks,” such as name changes.
Perry agreed that name changes were difficult, requiring repeated travel, a $200 fee, and months of waiting. “And that’s before talking to banks, credit cards, social security and everything else.” She also says she is planning to ask WPI for a new diploma with her correct name.
Despite the headache, Perry says she still has it easier than many. “I’m a white woman with a college degree, with a car and license, so even in the worst case, I’m good. BIPOC trans people, unfortunately, have it the worst in these kinds of situations.” Services like those offered at Kennedy could be a step forward in combating the race and class based access issues that arise in these situations, she said.
This speaks to the larger mission of equity at Kennedy Community Health Center — of which the new transgender health team is a part of — that everyone is entitled to healthcare, regardless of socio-economic status, race, sexual orientation or gender identity. And the team at Kennedy Center will be coordinating with similar teams across Massachusetts, sharing knowledge and practices.
“We want people to come get excellent care,” said McMahan, “regardless of how they identify.”
PHOTO | COURTESY OF EDWARD M. KENNEDY COMMUNITY HEALTH CENTER
Steve Kerrigan, President & CEO of the Edward M. Kennedy Community Health Center, receives his flu vaccination.
By Sarah Connell Sanders
Steve Kerrigan established himself as a senior aide to Senator Edward Kennedy before taking on the roles of CEO of both the 2012 Democratic National Convention Committee and the 2013 Presidential Inaugural Committee. Kerrigan then served as chief of staff for President Barack Obama’s 2009 Presidential Inaugural Committee.
What attracted you to EMK, and how long have you served as CEO?
The mission attracted me. I did not have a career in public health or healthcare at all when I was recruited for the job, but I did have experience working for Edward Kennedy, the senator, who was driven for his entire career to provide healthcare access to everybody regardless of ability to pay. I’ve been in the job since July 2, 2019.
Tell me about EMK’s latest trans health care offerings.
We’re incredibly excited to have recently launched a trans healthcare practice based in our Worcester health center. We have 100 or so patients now, and we’ve only been open a couple of months. We’re the only health center west of Boston doing this specific work. We’re really proud to be on the cutting edge because it is so critical for people to have access to competent care directed at their needs and the issues they’re going through as trans patients.
We have some clinicians who have been doing this work for a very long time with a lot of our patients, but it is great to now offer a formalized unit focused on trans health. Giving people an understanding that they can be themselves in front of their doctors and have conversations about what they truly need from a care perspective is really pivotal. I am a very proud out gay man. I know how important it is to have a provider who understands the needs of the LGBTQ+ community. I’m just thrilled we can do that for our trans patients and our trans friends.
Steve Kerrigan Shop Talk
How are you approaching a capital campaign during this precarious time?
We almost don’t have an option when it comes to the Milford expansion. There is such a need across all the communities we serve, but particularly in Milford. We currently provide primary care in a 5,000-square-foot site in Milford. The need in the community is such we desperately require more access to primary care. We want to increase access to dental care, optometry care, and behavioral health care. That was enhanced and amplified during COVID, which is why we kept moving forward with plans to expand.
We can’t wait for there to be better economic times to do this work because it’s moments like this when the service we provide is much more in demand. We provide access to care regardless of ability to pay; that is a critical part of who we are. By making our case to the community about the value, we’re going to be able to meet our goals and hopefully get this building occupied and running by the end of the year.
EMK was started 50 years ago by seven women from Great Brook Valley. How are you preserving their legacy while addressing the community’s needs?
It’s funny; the needs of those seven brave founding mothers, as I call them, are still the needs today. They were tired of sending their children and family to the emergency room to receive primary care. It’s at the root of who we are as an organization. Our job is to provide access to care for folks.
We’re obviously much different than the one room they occupied with one nurse practitioner back in 1972. Now, we have 11 different sites, including six school-based health centers. We employ more than 420 people and see almost 30,000 patients a year. Their original goal is very much at the center of our current mission, which is to help people live healthier lives and to give them access to high quality care, regardless of their ability to pay. My hope is, wherever they are, they are looking down on us, and they are proud of their legacy. But for their bravery and ingenuity to set up this center and to get the right partners together to make it a reality, we would not have served more than a quarter million people over the course of our 50-year history.
Is there a network of support among nonprofit leaders in Central Mass.?
Yes. All of the leaders across all of the nonprofits work really well together. That dynamic was, of course, exemplified in response to the pandemic. Worcester Together assembled on 24 hours notice when the pandemic hit and provided critical care for folks. Even before that, people were incredibly welcoming. When I got the job, they scheduled visits and conversations so I could learn about what how they impact the community.
WORCESTER — Patti Parker couldn’t believe her eyes.
She recently toured the Edward M. Kennedy Community Health Center at 19 Tacoma St., where she witnessed doctors, nurses and staff treating patients with a wide variety of health needs.
“I’m in awe of what’s been done here,” Parker said.
It’s a far cry from Parker’s childhood. Fifty years ago, she was one of the center’s first patients.
In those days the center was called the Great Brook Valley Health Center – the name was changed to the Edward M. Kennedy Community Health Center in 2010.
Fifty years ago, the center was located in tight quarters across the street inside the Great Brook Valley public housing development. Parker lived in GBV with her mother and remembered access to health care for GBV residents as “barely existent.”
From those humble beginnings, the center grew to serve more than 28,000 patients annually, employ more than 300 people and has an operating budget in fiscal 2023 in excess of $47 million.
Trust science, not unfounded beliefs, assumptions or worse
Dr. Pablo Hernandez
Imagine this: A deadly virus is killing children, robbing too many of them and their parents of a bright future. As outbreaks emerge, parents keep their children in isolation and live in fear that they are unprotected from the silent virus.
Hero researchers work day and night to discover a vaccine to stop the spread. Their hard work pays off, but, when the vaccine was unveiled, the response from Americans was unexpected.
Is this 2021 America during COVID?
No. This was 1955 America during polio.
Americans 66 years ago did what would be, to some, unthinkable today – they volunteered their children by the hundreds of thousands to be test subjects for the experimental vaccine.
Even after tragedy struck and batches of vaccine meant to stop the spread actually gave children polio (infecting 40,000 and killing 10 children), Americans stuck with it. They stood in line, they showed patience, they showed faith in science.
Today’s vaccine for COVID-19 is, by comparison, far safer than the polio vaccine. And yet, day after day in Central Massachusetts, I see and hear about patients who refuse the vaccine – for themselves and for their children – based on erroneous assumptions.
Here are the facts: The COVID-19 vaccine is very safe, period. This isn’t an experimental vaccine. This has been tested. Retested. Re-re-tested. It is safe.
And yet too many individuals are up in arms based on premises that fall into false beliefs and assumptions or worse, not science.
When I am faced with a patient who does not believe in the COVID-19 vaccine and does not want to get it, for themselves or their child, I approach the situation in one of two ways:
• For a patient I don’t know very well or I am meeting for the first time, I engage in a conversation to understand their fear, usually to uncover that they don’t seem to really know what they are truly afraid of.
As we know, fear is often based on unfounded facts, not on science. Fear of the COVID-19 vaccine is based on misplaced concerns about RNA inhibitors, infertility, tracking microchips, magnetism or any of the other baseless theories populating too many internet stories.
So when I meet with a patient or any individual who is afraid of getting the COVID-19 vaccine, I try to explain the facts to quiet their fears. I understand I might not get them to say yes immediately because I know they have to leave the area of their belief and go toward science; but at least the conversation has started.
We all need to exercise patience with those who are resistant, however, we must persist and help them to reach beyond their fears to learn the facts about the COVID-19 vaccine. Only through steady vaccinations will this virus go the way of polio. We can only do that together.
Dr. Pablo Hernandez is the chief medical officer at Edward M. Kennedy Community Health Center with locations in Worcester, Framingham and Milford.
There’s an entire generation of Americans who have no living memory of Ryan White’s courage, his story and the impact that fresh-faced teenager’s battle with HIV did to jumpstart our nation’s battle with HIV and AIDS.
But today, on World AIDS Day, even as we celebrate the federal effort begun in Ryan White’s name three decades ago, we must also act to address some difficult truths about the all-too-persistent challenges that continue to haunt that battle. The inequitable access to care, the social and cultural stigmas that keep too many from seeking care and the roadblocks that mean too much of the community health work is focused on treatment, not prevention.
For me, this is a deeply personal fight.
I’m a gay man leading one of the largest community health centers in Central Massachusetts, one that carries the name of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the man I was an intern for in 1990 when he led the charge for the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Act. Unfortunately, the pandemic has exposed many inequities and challenges to this work and we need leaders on Beacon Hill and Capitol Hill to take note.
Earlier this year, our region saw a spike in new HIV diagnoses tied to drug use, particularly those who share contaminated needles. The CDC reported that this increase, also seen in cases of viral hepatitis and other bacterial and fungal infections, was pronounced in many rural and suburban communities.
Our team has also noted an emerging trend of cases linked to polysubstance use — using more than one drug at once — and methamphetamine use and we are expecting a surge of cases tied to lockdown-related care disruptions.
But the biggest challenge we face is that HIV continues to spread in the shadows and our systems are not responding to properly prevent an escalation of the spread that we can see coming. In the United States, about 14%, or one in seven, of the estimated 1 million people living with HIV don’t even know they have it. Beyond that, undiagnosed individuals account for between 30 and 40% of the transmission.
Today, I am honored to stand with Ericka Olivera and her team who lead our center’s Ryan White program. We are one of the many beneficiaries of federal funding, which has grown from $220 million the year the Ryan White Act was signed to more than $2 billion today.
The biggest challenge we face is that HIV continues to spread in the shadows …
Our team provides comprehensive care to 115 patients with HIV/AIDS, with the goal of helping them to suppress and live with the virus. We create an individualized care plan for every patient, including continuous patient monitoring, re-evaluation every six months, supportive counseling and advocacy in a range of non-health but clearly related areas — from transportation, food security, housing and other benefits.
We have treatments that work but not if we can’t prevent the spread. The federal preventive services task force recommends all adults be screened at least once during their lifetime and more frequently among those with increased risk factors. But even if that were happening, which it isn’t, that’s not nearly enough screening to stop the spread.
And as much good as can happen with federal grants like the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program, our teams need more flexibility from the federal government to carry out that mandate by focusing more time on prevention.
When speaking on the Senate floor in 1990, Sen. Kennedy said that Ryan White never condemned anyone after he received the tainted blood that ultimately killed him. Rather, White was “reaching out in the true spirit of the American character to recognize that there were people who were suffering.”
For too many, the suffering continues. It’s time for us, as a nation, to redouble our efforts for Ted Kennedy, Ryan White and another generation of people who deserve better.
Stephen J. KerriganCognoscenti contributor Stephen J. Kerrigan is the president and CEO of the Edward M. Kennedy Community Health Center, which serves more than 27,000 patients in Worcester, Framingham and Milford.
Advisory Councils expand the reach and resources of America250 to engage all Americans in the most inclusive commemoration in U.S. history
Washington, D.C. –America250, the nationwide commemoration of America’s 250th anniversary in 2026 led by the U.S. Semiquincentennial Commission, has established 11 Advisory Councils across a variety of industries and specialties to increase inclusiveness, expand America250’s capacity and connection to partners and stakeholders, and facilitate program development, implementation, and social impact.
“We are excited to introduce our 11 Advisory Councils as we seek to connect with millions of Americans on our journey to 2026,” said Dr. Carleen Carey, Director of Public Outreach and Inclusion at America250. “Each council is composed of industry luminaries and leading experts in their respective fields who are empowered by America250’s mission and values. We look forward to the thoughtful contributions they will bring to this commemoration to ensure we are capturing the many voices of Americans.”
The current roster of Advisory Councils includes: Arts & Culture; Health & Wellness; History Education; Hospitality & Tourism; Innovation, Science & Entrepreneurship; International; Parks, Preservation & Public Spaces; Sports & Entertainment; Veterans, Military & Family Members; Youth Engagement; and Young Leaders. As America250 continues planning and preparations, additional Advisory Councils will be created.
Health & Wellness Advisory Council The Health & Wellness Advisory Council will bring together America’s experts in each area of health and wellness, covering topics of physical health, mental health, social well-being, and environmental health. Experts will inform the Foundation on the historic developments of health and wellness in America while also exploring the advancements and challenges of the present and future, enabling America250 to explore programs and partnerships that contribute to the overall health of our nation and its people.
Members: ● Ramsey Alwin, President & CEO, National Council on Aging (NCOA) ● Dr. Alicia Bazzano, Chief Health Officer, Special Olympics ● Dr. Georges Benjamin, Executive Director, American Public Health Association ● Stacy Bohlen, Chief Executive Officer, National Indian Health Board ● Dr. Jane Delgado, President and CEO, National Alliance for Hispanic Health (Co-Chair) ● Dr. Victor Dzau, President, National Academy of Medicine ● Dr. Judy Heumann, President, Judith Heumann LLC (Co-Chair) ● Dr. Sara Newman, Director, National Park Service, Office of Public Health (Ex-Officio) ● Stephen Kerrigan, President and CEO, Edward M. Kennedy Community Health Center ● Dr. Oluwaferanmi Okanlami, Director, Assistant Professor, University of Michigan and UCLA ● Amit Paley, CEO & Executive Director, The Trevor Project ● Dr. Cheri Blauwet, Sports Medicine Physician and Assistant Professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Harvard Medical School
About America250 America250 is a multiyear effort to commemorate the semiquincentennial, or 250th anniversary, of the United States. The purpose of the U.S. Semiquincentennial Commission, created by Congress, and the corresponding America250 Foundation, is to catalyze a more perfect union by designing and leading the most comprehensive and inclusive celebration in our country’s history. America250 represents a coalition of public and private partners all working to create initiatives and programs that honor our first 250 years and inspire Americans to imagine our next 250. The commemoration period began in 2020, culminates on July 4, 2026, and officially concludes in 2027. For more information, visit www.america250.org and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Media Contact: Rebecca Devine, email@example.com
Will be built across the street from existing facility
MILFORD — After operating a small health care center on Cape Road for the past seven years, the Edward M. Kennedy Community Health Center plans to increase its reach by building a bigger office across the street.
The Kennedy Health Center, which was founded in a Worcester housing project in 1972, opened its Milford office at 42 Cape Road to increase access to primary care services and to lessen the pressure put on Milford Regional Medical Center’s emergency room.
The 5,000-square-foot health center in the Cape Road Plaza provides Milford residents with primary and preventative medical care, access to mental health professionals, case management, care coordination, lab service and help with obtaining benefits.
“We’ve been in Milford for quite some time with a good number of patients,” said Steve Kerrigan, president and CEO of Kennedy Community Health. “When I took this role two years ago, it became very clear that there was a need in the community for more primary care services but the space we’re currently operating within now won’t allow for an expansion.”
About two years ago, the company began looking for a new space to open a Milford center and decided earlier this year on a piece of land directly across the street from its current building.
The new office — 41 Cape Road — is expected to be three times larger than its current center, said Kerrigan, or about 15,000 square feet.
The company is in the process of finalizing designs for the buildout and estimates the cost to build and equip the inside of the new building to be around $4.5 million.
Milford isn’t the only place where Kennedy Health is expanding. This past summer, it announced a $6.5 million investment in a new, 30,000-square-foot office on Lincoln Street in Worcester.
The new Milford center will be built on an undeveloped plot of land next to a Milford Regional Urgent Care center. Not only will it allow the company to expand its primary care services, but to add on-site dental and behavioral practices, an optometrist and a pharmacy, according to Kerrigan.
The center plans to serve thousands more patients for primary care, said Kerrigan, adding that including dental care is critically important to make it more accessible for those in the area. The new pharmacy program will allow patients to access low-cost prescription drugs closer to home, as some patients still travel as far as Framingham to get medications filled, said Kerrigan.
The new center is slated to open a year from now, said Kerrigan, which will help it mark its 50th anniversary.
“Next year will be a big year for us,” he said.
Site work has already begun to prepare for construction, said Kerrigan. While Kennedy Health will build the new structure, it will lease from a landlord — the same landlord with whom it has a lease at Cape Road Plaza.
“This is a site that’s been small but mighty, and they’ve done incredible work there,” Kerrigan said of Kennedy Health’s current location.
There are 37 staff members employed at the Milford health center, serving 4,639 patients totaling 13,555 visits during fiscal 2020, said Bridget Perry, a communications representative for Kennedy Health.
In Massachusetts, more than 1 million residents rely on community health centers as their primary care provider, according to the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts. Kennedy Community Health Center is one of 52 federally qualified community health centers in the state.
“Especially during the pandemic, there was a lot of difficulties in the health care space and challenges with health care delivery services and we were no different than that,” said Kerrigan.
In nearly 50 years of operation, Kennedy Health — originally founded as Great Brook Valley Health Center Inc. — expanded its services form Worcester to Framingham and Milford. It has seven school-based health center sites.
Kennedy Health’s Milford office, the first community health center in town, was built with funding from both the MetroWest Health Foundation and The Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts.
Lauren Young writes about business and pop culture. Reach her at 774-804-1499 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @laurenwhy__.
An FTCA Deemed and NCQA Recognized Facility. We serve all patients regardless of ability to pay. Sliding Fee Scale discounts for essential services are offered if you are eligible, depending upon family size and income. You may apply for a sliding fee discount at the front desk where you receive care. This health center receives HHS funding and has Federal Public Health Service (PHS) deemed status with respect to certain health or health-related claims, including medical malpractice claims, for itself and its covered individuals.