An Interview with Craig Kennedy

Craig KennedyCraig Kennedy has been the Executive Director of the Association of 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 Health Funding.

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 Willamette University.

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 care access.

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 growing up.

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