Kennedy has been the Executive Director of the
Clinicians for the Underserved (ACU) since
2013. Previous to that, he was the Associate
Vice-President at the National Association of
Community Health Centers (NACHC) for 13
years. Kennedy has also worked on Capitol Hill
and in the Oregon State Legislature. He is a current
member of the Partnership for Medicaid and he serves on
the Board of Directors for the Coalition for
Kennedy received his Masters in Public Health from
George Washington University School of Public Health and
his Bachelor's of Science in Computer Science from
For relaxation, Kennedy, who calls himself a
“math and computer science guy,”
likes to work on puzzles and games. For more active fun,
he likes do an occasional triathlon and hang out with his
wife, Linda, and their three daughters.
What is the ACU?
ACU works to expand access to primary care clinicians in
underserved areas, and support those clinicians already
serving in shortage areas. We were formed by alumni of
the National Health Service Corps (NHSC), a federal
program that repays loans and offers scholarships to
providers who serve in shortage areas. So we promote
placements and support them once they get there. About 44
percent of NHSC placements are rural, though they're not
mandated to do so.
There are a lot of organizations that support the NHSC,
but it was always third or fourth on the list of
priorities. For ACU, we can and we do make it number one
in our policy agenda, and that gives us the ability to
take a leadership role in the program's future.
Is saving the NHSC your main goal right now?
It's the goal this year. The NHSC is facing a
real funding cliff and our leadership is critical to its
survival. It has to happen by October 1st.
We're still in threat mode. Some days I definitely panic,
and some days I feel like the message is getting across.
Everything we can do, we have to do to save the
Corps—writing letters, working the Hill,
working the administration—so it doesn't get in
a cycle of possibly ending, then saving it, then ending
again, and saving again, etc. We want to get it in a
cycle of strength and growth.
The funding for NHSC used to be an annual appropriation.
With the Affordable Care Act (ACA) it was moved a
five-year trust fund. That increased the Corps
substantially, and we were happy with that. But this is
the end of the five years. It wasn't an ongoing
fund—it was just 'here's five years and we'll
figure it out at the end'. Now all the players are
different; the people who drafted the trust fund are no
longer the leaders and chairs in Congress. The NHSC has
had bipartisan support since the program was created 40
some years ago, so we're optimistic that that bipartisan
support will carry over, but the funding today was passed
in a partisan package as part of the ACA.
Why did you want to work for ACU? How is it different
from your past work?
I grew up on the outskirts of Rainier, Ore., a small,
rural town, where we were definitely considered
“low-income.” I bounced between the
free and reduced price lunch program, depending on the
year. When we needed healthcare we actually had to drive
across the river into Washington State. There was no
healthcare infrastructure locally. What I learned over
the years is that there are millions of people who have
no access to care, and no way to pay for it even if it
did exist. We need to make sure people have access to
primary care without the fear of being unable to afford
it for their family.
We are a small team here (two full-time staff, two
part-time staff and part-time consultants). All of us
seem to do everything. At NACHC, I was in the policy
shop, so my work was limited to that arena. I do love
policy, but ACU has given me the opportunity to learn
about the entire organization and how all the pieces fit
together. I have traveled to several states in the past
year to speak at various primary care conferences. It is
always helpful to visit directly with the folks on the
ground, making the difference right there in their
communities. That's what really drives us all.
What are some ACU projects or initiatives that you would
like to boast about?
I think I'm most proud of the leadership ACU has shown on
the NHSC. And recognizing that, we have had the NHSC
leadership work with us on our conferences. Also, ACU has
been asked to be one of the key responders to the
President's FY15 Budget Request that focused on primary
We also recently launched the STAR² (Solutions,
Training, and Assistance for Recruitment and Retention)
Center. Yes, it's a federally funded program, but it's
really cool. Our lead staffer on the project, Allison
Abayasekara, is just terrific. We've rolled out the
website, which offers a Resources page
with toolkits, manuals, best practices, and other
resources, and a Training page,
which lists regional trainings and webinars.
STAR² is part of a cooperative agreement with the
Bureau of Primary Health
Care to help health centers with clinical workforce
recruitment and retention (R&R) needs. No one has
done this before—a cooperative agreement on
R&R targeted on clinics. We are excited about this
project and we're building out a comprehensive program
with resources, research, training and technical
assistance for health centers across the country.
The Center will do profiles of every single FQHC in the
country—we have 1,300 profiles. The next step
is distributing them at the state level (through primary
care offices and primary care associations), and then the
individual profiles to the health centers themselves.
With the health clinics with the greatest challenges, we
should start to find commonalities. Is it because they
are frontier? Is it recruitment? Retention? Then we are
going to offer trainings and individualized technical
assistance to those that are seeing the most challenges,
based on their needs.
How is ACU funded?
Like most associations, we have four main revenue
streams: grants, sponsorships, annual conferences and
membership. We're small but growing.
You worked as a legislative assistant and legislative
director in Congress. Did this lead you to going back to
school to earn your master's degree?
I started as an intern in the Senate Finance Committee,
which has jurisdiction over tax, trade and health policy.
That gave me some background in health policy, especially
since Clinton was pushing health care as a priority at
the time. But my work in the House really allowed me to
branch out to a number of different policy areas and see
what I was truly interested in. By the time I left the
House in 1999, I knew I wanted to focus on access issues
for those in the most need—people like me
I received my master's degree because of Sara Rosenbaum
and the encouragement from NACHC. She was recruiting
people to get an MPH in Health Policy at GW and nobody in
my family had ever received a master's degree. So with
NACHC's support (both financially and professionally) I
now have an MPH.
You're from Oregon but currently live/work in the D.C.
area. Think you'll ever move back?
When you are from the West, you always have it in your
blood. Nothing compares to the mountains, rivers and the
Pacific Ocean. I believe the sun only sets over the
ocean, it does not rise over it (with all due respect to
my wife who was raised in New Jersey). We are focused on
raising our children here for now. And when we retire,
I'm hoping for someplace warm and with a nice ocean where
I can watch the sunset with my lovely wife.
Opinions expressed are those of the interviewee
and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Rural
Health Information Hub.
Back to: Winter 2015 Issue