It's not every day that a pediatric nurse climbs the career ladder to become the highest ranking woman in health care in the District of Columbia, but Karen Johnson now has that distinction.
Johnson, executive director of the United Healthcare Community Plan has, since early this year been guiding the fortunes of the company. She and her family moved from the Midwest.
"Settling in has been relatively easy. The people in D.C. are warm and nurturing," said Johnson, a Detroit native who came from Cleveland, Ohio. "People reached out and introduced themselves. I was surprised."
Johnson said she was also surprised by some of the challenges she's seen, such as the lack of integration, and promises she'll work hard to contribute to a shift in a more positive direction.
"It is very silo-ed between primary care, hospitals and other institutions. What's more striking is that there doesn't seem to be cohesion of stakeholders," said Johnson. "I work with all the hospitals in town and I'd like to see us work together more. It seems to be more short-term strategies and everyman for himself."
Johnson said she and her staff have some formidable obstacles as they seek to improve the health and well-being of residents, primarily those living east of the Anacostia River.
"There are huge health care disparities in this town," she said during an interview in United Healthcare's Northwest offices, citing high unemployment, infant mortality, readmission rates and chronic illnesses.
"United's goal is to help people live healthier lives and because we work with the most health-challenged individuals, "we see it close up."
"We're out in the community at events, doctors' offices, elsewhere, things insurance companies don't usually do," she said. "There's a tremendous opportunity to make a difference."
Johnson said United Healthcare recently received a $15 million grant from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services [CMS] that will allow the company to help the most vulnerable city residents. She said her staff has identified homelessness, behavioral health and medical problems as among the most pressing problems to be addressed.
From what she's seen, Johnson said, elected officials have the political will to effect meaningful change.
"There's a real, sincere interest in trying to improve the health care of residents in their wards. However, this is not coordinated across wards," she said.
Johnson said United Healthcare has a new product it rolled out earlier this year that is of tremendous benefit to seniors. Many of the elderly often have to make choices about which medical needs they'll take care of month-to-month, she said. So they may ask their doctors for generic drugs, delay medical appointments or split pills.
The United Healthcare Dual Complete is a special plan that provides seniors with viable health care options offering peace of mind without breaking the bank, she said.
"This is a great product for seniors in the District," she said. "We like to think of our plan as the bridge between living longer and living well. There are roughly 19,000 people who would fall into this category. I'm really excited that we can offer this to residents."
The plan offers qualified seniors a network of doctors and specialists, hearing and vision services, free transportation to medical appointments and medical supplies shipped directly to their homes.
On the national stage, Johnson said she appreciates the Obama health plan because of its ability to help people achieve greater health outcomes.
"I don't care about the politics," she said. "I grew up in Detroit, in nursing and public health. I saw the same types of people – the vulnerable, women, babies and seniors."
Johnson's diverse background makes her eminently suited for her current job. She earned an undergraduate and graduate degree from her father's alma mater, the University of Michigan, holds a law degree and has more than 25 years experience in nursing, management and sales.
"I bring a very holistic background to health care," she said with a laugh. "I learned how to think analytically. I like data and I like to ask a lot of questions. I don't like to waste money. Maybe it's because I had grandparents who lived through the Great Depression."
One of her major influences, Johnson said, is her paternal grandmother.
"She was one heck of a lady. She came from the South," Johnson recalled. "She was in the middle of 11 girls, born of an interracial couple. [On the trip North], her dad drove and her mother was covered up because he could not be seen with a black woman."
Johnson described her grandmother as a woman who was very intelligent and wanted to go to college but because of her circumstances, she couldn't. However, she instilled that desire and intellectual curiosity in Johnson.
"She was the one who told me I could do and be anything," said Johnson with a broad smile. "She was a strong lady, very opinionated. I spent a lot of time with her because she lived around the block."
Johnson said she accompanied her grandmother to clean white folks' homes, "and that's where I learned the value of money. I worked with her and she paid me."
As an undergrad, Johnson said, she had a rough time as one of a handful of black students in a dorm of about 700 white students. She said she wanted to leave, but her father, Charles Walker, said he would only allow her to transfer if she was failing academically.
"So I made it my mission to graduate at the top of my class," said Johnson. "I faced the same things in law school. Interestingly, in the work world, it didn't matter what I looked like. Professionally, it hasn't been a barrier. My best mentors were white and men."
Johnson said the company has invested in her development and allowed her to take classes at the Wharton School of Business.
When she's not logging long hours on the job, Johnson – wife and mother of a blended family of five – said she does what she loves: traveling and reading.
"Paris is my favorite city because it's so cosmopolitan. There are all kinds of people and I love the museums," she said. "You can stop and have a bottle of wine at a café. I could see myself retiring there."
Johnson said she also has a special love for Jamaica as evidenced by her having visited the island nation 11 times.