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.
While the new year is well underway, I wanted to take one last opportunity to highlight the incredible work our Kennedy Community Health staff has done to ensure members of our communities live healthier lives.
Those of you who know me know I love numbers, particularly when they tell powerful stories.
2022 marked Kennedy Community Health’s 50th anniversary and I couldn’t be more grateful to those who made that milestone possible. When Kennedy Community Health was founded in 1972 as the Great Brook Valley Health Center, our seven Founding Mothers were determined to break the status quo and provide care to a population that had been too often overlooked by the area’s healthcare delivery system.
Fifty years later, I am proud to say that Kennedy Community Health continues to provide care to all who walk through our doors, regardless of age, race, religious beliefs, immigration or coverage status.
In 2022, we saw 31,120 patients, the largest number served in our history. That on its own is a soaring achievement. But then, when we dig deeper, we find that our teams provided care in 85 languages across our three medical facilities. Among these individuals were 280 refugees from countries across the world, brought to us through our Refugee Health Assessment Program, one of only ten in the Commonwealth.
Kennedy Community Health increased its standing as a leader in LGBTQIA+ health care equality and now sees 163 patients by our transgender care team, providing these individuals with gender affirming hormone therapy and comprehensive health care and social services. This number has almost doubled since the team’s creation two years ago and we look forward to continuing to provide gender affirming care to all who need it.
As part of Kennedy Community Health’s comprehensive model of care, patients may have their prescriptions filled at our health centers and we processed 137,307 prescriptions over the last year. We also distributed 2,708 glasses through our Optometry programs.
Our insurance navigation services and community health workers partner with patients and medical providers to advance our goal of excellent health outcomes for all, as we recognize that health is affected by a variety of outside factors. Our team of Navigators completed 2,370 insurance applications, 1,546 insurance renewals and provided 14,277 assists with health insurance needs.
These numbers should make us proud. Prouder still because behind them are happy, healthier patients who are even more dedicated to this, their community health center.
We want to thank our patients and our community who understand the value of quality health care and we look forward to the future as we continue to help all people live healthier lives.
I’m writing today to update you, our patients, supporters and dedicated staff about some recent and unnerving events that may appear to threaten community-based health care in Greater Worcester. We at Kennedy Community Health are acutely aware of how recent headlines and news reports have evoked a sense of uncertainty in community health, so we want to update you on our Health Center in a clear and concise manner and be available to answer any questions you, our most important audiences, have.
Kennedy Community Health is strong, structurally and financially, and is expanding access to health care in Central Massachusetts with two new sites in Worcester and Milford opening early 2023. Our growing team remains committed to putting the health and wellbeing of patients first and we will continue to provide exemplary care to all who come through our doors, whether they have been coming to our facilities for generations or are just starting today.
We understand that this is a challenging time for members of our community and want to reassure you that we have and are continuing to offer support to those who need it most. We have been in steady and constant contact with Family Health Center of Worcester before and through their recent financial challenges. We will continue to work with them to ensure they can stay a strong and vibrant organization providing community-based health care for years to come. While the leadership of Family Health continues to consider various options to secure their future, Kennedy Community Health will remain positioned to ensure the public health of this region remains strong and be ready to assist them further should they be open to our plan.
Community health centers have been a cornerstone of care since their creation in 1965 and are essential partners in our community, particularly for our most vulnerable populations. The pandemic has shown us more than any time in recent history the power of strong, local, accessible and affordable health care for anyone who needs it. We look out for the families we serve and work to address the social determinants of health that impact them so fundamentally.
Kennedy Community Health is grateful for our providers and staff, for their dedication to serving the members of our community. We look forward to continuing to ensure our patients live healthier lives as we continue moving our core mission forward for generations to come.
Cries for equality and justice, for rights and opportunities have been with us for far too long. Five decades ago, in the 1970s, the Civil Rights Movement was dominating the headlines. People on the streets demanded health care now. Born from those demands, the community health center movement emerged. Health centers not only provided access to needed care, but they were also a vehicle for economic growth and development in neighborhoods that needed it the most.
In Great Brook Valley, the largest public housing complex in Central MA, seven mothers came together with the same goal in mind: better access to high-quality, comprehensive and preventative care for their families. At the time, residents faced tremendous barriers. In some instances, it could take hours and many bus lines just to get to the emergency room. Some patients took multiple buses with broken bones, bleeding wounds or worse. A report from 1971 described such a situation.
One woman in her twenties brought her six-year-old daughter to a hospital with an injured arm, requesting an x-ray. The staff put a bandage on her and sent her home, but the pain persisted. At a second hospital, the child was diagnosed with a broken arm. The same mother’s eight-year-old received stitches in her leg that burst open once they reached home. Her one-and-a-half-year-old son was diagnosed with a bad asthma attack and given medication for it. A second opinion found the true problem, a collapsed lung.
On August 22, 1972, everything changed. Fed up with the status quo, those seven brave mothers, our Founding Mothers, from Great Brook Valley came together to bring care to the housing complex. The mothers enlisted the help of community leader, Charles Estus, and formed a Health Committee to demonstrate need in the neighborhood. They negotiated for one nurse practitioner to provide care in one room in one apartment, thereby founding the Great Brook Valley Health Center. And on this day in 1972, the Health Center was incorporated.
We know the story from there: one room became five, five became a whole building, and so on until today, 50 years later, Kennedy Community Health proudly serves over 29,000 individuals through 11 sites across Central Mass and MetroWest. These sites, staffed by over 450 members of the communities we serve, provide access to high-quality, comprehensive and inclusive care to anyone who walks through our doors.
Standing on the shoulders of our seven founding mothers, we’re forging ahead with not one, but two expansions, in both Worcester and Milford. The story does not end here.
We continue to carry forth the mission and vision of those seven trailblazers each and every day. We find new opportunities. We dream bigger, we have a greater impact, and we bring more services to more people across the Commonwealth. Every day, we help people live healthier lives but in the words of our namesake, Senator Kennedy, the work goes on.
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.
PHONE (800) 853 2288
FAX 800 853 8593
MEDICAL RECORDS FAX: 508 595 1161
115 NE Cutoff, Bldg. 2, Suite 200, Worcester, MA 01606
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.