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Public health executive director stepping down

September 24, 2018

On a recent Friday at the Earl Bennett Building in downtown Kalispell, Jody White would rather not talk about herself. She is, as she says, a “behind-the-scenes” person - someone who smoothes the road and steadies the ship so everyone else can do their work. And at the Flathead Community Health Center, there’s plenty of work to talk about.

As executive director, White manages nearly 60 people and oversees the delivery of crucial medical, dental, Title X, family planning, HIV prevention, and behavioral health services to the community. The center - a service within the health department focused on delivering accessible, affordable non-emergency health care, on a sliding fee scale, to any community member - now sees nearly 8,000 patients.

White, a resident of the Creston area, has served as director of the center since 2014. This Friday, she’ll step down after 18 years of working for the county in public health.

A native of Manhattan, Montana, White first moved to the Flathead in 1992, after she graduated nursing school at Montana State University. She started first in family planning, working in counseling with teens and women, then helped start the immunization program for infant hepatitis B vaccinations.

She and her family - her husband and five kids, now ranging in age from 21 to 32 - moved away from the Flathead from 1995 to 2000. When they returned, White resumed her efforts for the county as a public health nurse. The “public” aspect of that job soon ratcheted up as county governments and hospitals reassessed their readiness for wide-scale emergencies in the aftermath of 9/11.

“At that time, that was a new job I took, as the emergency preparedness coordinator for the health department,” she said. The role required thinking through the numerous ways Flathead County could be vulnerable to, and thus prepare for, a significant public health emergency, such as an infectious disease outbreak of pertussis or H1N1 swine flu. White found herself working with the media more, as well as collaborating with other health and social service organizations in the valley.

The good-faith cooperation that she witnessed then is something she’s seen develop since she first started working for Flathead County’s public health over 25 years ago. “This community is so collaborative, on so many levels. And I’ve seen that in every role that I’ve had here.”

That cooperation is not a given, she said - it’s taken years of work and collaboration between agencies. When she attends meetings with other public health officials from across Montana and the country, she’s realized that “that’s not the culture everywhere. That’s the culture that’s been created in our community, which is really amazing. It’s amazing what we can do.”

For example, when she first started out in the Flathead as a recent nursing school graduate, White crafted the community health needs assessment mostly on her own. Now, she said, “our community health assessment that we do is collaborative, so we do one with both hospitals, the health department and the health center. It’s just amazing because it’s so much more robust.

“I’ve seen a huge change in my career because a lot of the jobs I’ve had have been working with the hospital and other entities, and I’ve seen a huge change since when I started, in 1992, in that collaboration between the hospitals and public health.”

In the last 18 years, building on her work in emergency preparedness, White has tackled more public-facing and management roles for the county health department. She served as community health director for five years, during which time she coordinated county-wide programs covering immunization, home visiting, communicable disease and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).

She assumed the role of interim director of the Community Health Center in April of 2014, making it permanent in July of that year.

The center has continued to expand access to care during White’s tenure. They added a permanent residency position to provide students with on-the-ground clinical training in 2014. One contracted mental health professional has become three, same for dentists.

The opening of the satellite clinic in Hungry Horse is one of the center’s proudest accomplishments. The clinic, opened in 2016 and renovated this summer, offers primary care services, mental health counseling, and will soon offer dental services on Mondays and Thursdays at the old Canyon Elementary School.

White said she’s proud of “that expansion of services and providing access to care in that community.”

“That one’s personal to me, too. My husband grew up in Hungry Horse. So even though I’m not from there, my mother-in-law,” who she said has passed away, “would think that’s so cool.”

Expansion of dental and integrated behavioral health services - counseling for mental health concerns - has been another focus of expansion. “We’re still learning and growing, but the fact that we have offer all of those resources for the patients that we serve in one place is great.”

White said that expansions, decisions and the center’s daily work all boil down to a simple mission: access to quality health care. “Everything we do, we look: is it meeting that? Is it providing access to not only those who don’t have access but to anyone who chooses to use our services. Everybody deserves to have the same quality of health care that they would find everywhere else.”

From a management perspective, White said she’s learned her behind-the-scenes trade - communicating between teams and agencies, attending meetings and spending countless hours on federal requirements to sustain funding for the center - primarily on the job. “But I also think it’s my personality to be innovating and figuring out ways to do things more effectively and efficiently.”

“I like to make sure everything is in place so that people who are really good at the hands-on have whatever they need to make that happen,” she said.

On that note, she said, “I couldn’t do it without the staff that are here. One of the great things about working in public health is that you tend to end up working with people who are mission-driven and want to be here. I’ve seen that in every different thing that I’ve done in my 18 years here.

“It’s really powerful to be surrounded by people who have the same mission,” she said.

White said she’s stepping back from the center “for personal reasons, I need to do something that gives me more flexibility with my time,” but that she’s leaving things “in really good hands.” Flathead County Public Health Officer Hillary Hanson will act as interim director until the hiring process for White’s replacement is complete.

In her final week, White is clear that her enthusiasm for public health, and of working with others driven by that mission, hasn’t faded. “The heart and the passion of the people who work here - that inspires me.”

So even though she’s not sure yet what her next chapter will entail, she said, “I will do something related to this work, making sure that people have access and that our community is healthy.”

Reporter Adrian Horton can be reached at 758-4439 or ahorton@dailyinterlake.com.

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