Karen Johnson: Health Care with a Personal Touch

Barrington M. Salmon | 11/14/2012, 8:43 a.m.

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."