Woodbury Touts Access Health

    MUSKEGON — She knew little about health care. Politics was her profession.

    As head of a fledgling community-based organization that was examining issues surrounding health care in Muskegon County, Vondie Moore Woodbury molded the two together.

    How do you find out what people are thinking about health care and what they really want? Old-fashioned political polling got some answers.

    How do you find the money to pay for what you want to do? Lessons learned from raising campaign funds were put to use on that problem.

    Despite her lack of knowledge about the ins and outs of health care, the Muskegon Community Health Project that Woodbury joined as project director six years ago was in many ways the perfect place to ply her capabilities in grassroots planning and organizing.

    Today the Muskegon Health Project is garnering national attention for Access Health, a community-based initiative that’s helping to provide health coverage for people and small businesses that went without insurance for years. The key to the program’s successful formation, as it is with politics, is to work with people to help them come up with the solution to a problem.

    “You learn so much from people. You just have to step back and people can come up with some wonderful ideas,” said Woodbury, who previously spent 14 years working for former U.S. Sen. Don Riegle, including managing his successful 1988 re-election campaign.

    “They know what the problems are, and more often than not, they know what the solutions are,” she said.

    A native of North Muskegon, the 52-year-old Woodbury opted to follow a youthful idealism after high school and pursue a degree in political science at Grand Valley State University, which she earned in 1971. She recalls how her father, the late “Tex” Moore, frowned on the choice.

    “My dad said, ‘Why in the world did you get that dumb degree? You’re never going to earn it,’” Woodbury said. “I finally did use that political science degree.”

    Just not for a while.

    Unable to find work in her chosen field after college, Woodbury initially took a part-time job after college at a local department store. She also taught part time in the evening for Orchard View schools’ GED program.

    At the same time, Woodbury became involved in Muskegon County Democratic Party politics and worked on the successful 1974 state Senate campaign for attorney Tony Derezinski. The experienced whetted her appetite for politics even further.

    “He won, he went off to Lansing and I said ‘Wow, I really enjoyed that,’” she said. “It was fun.”

    To further her career, Woodbury returned to college and earned a master’s degree in 1976 in public administration from Western Michigan University. After graduation, she went to work helping to rewrite the juvenile justice code in Michigan under then-Gov. William Milliken’s administration.

    That led to a job with the Michigan Coalition of Runaway Services, which established a database on runaway teens and trained police on how to handle runaway cases.

    Woodbury stepped into the political arena in 1981 when she went to work for Sen. Riegle as regional director of the Lansing office, handling constituent services, and then head of his Macomb County office in suburban Detroit. She spent 14 years as a key player on Riegle’s staff, including managing his successful 1988 re-election campaign and in the later years, serving as state director working out of Lansing and finally, after moving back to the Muskegon area following the death of her father, working from Riegle’s office in Grand Rapids.

    Woodbury joined the Muskegon Community Health Project at the beginning of 1995, the year Riegle left office after deciding not to seek another term in the U.S. Senate. Still searching for work that summer, Woodbury answered a newspaper ad, interviewed for the position and landed the job. The Health Project was at a crossroads after completing its pre-planning process and needed somebody who could help develop programs and secure the funding to implement them.

    The experience of working for a U.S. senator taught Woodbury valuable lessons in grassroots organizing and networking that are useful today at the Muskegon Community Health Project.

    “It was a neat match,” she said. “I love it when you can put people together in a room and let them tackle something.”

    Started in 1994, the Muskegon Community Health Project sought to address health and access issues in the county. The project’s initiatives include a comprehensive diabetes management program, providing dental care to children in underserved areas, and a new program to reduce the inappropriate use of antibiotics.

    The effort for which the Health Project has received the most attention is Access Health, a program designed to leverage Medicaid funds to offer health coverage for the uninsured, many of whom work at small businesses that are unable to afford health insurance. Access Health now covers workers at about 300 small businesses in Muskegon County.

    The satisfying aspect of Access Health for Woodbury is the difference it’s making for the small businesses and people who are enrolled in the health plan.

    “We came up with a dream that was needed for our community,” she said.

    Access Health has received national attention from major news outlets, the New York Times among them, as a new model that can help to reduce the number of uninsured people in the United States. Woodbury has taken several trips around the nation to explain the program in communities interested in starting a similar program.

    Woodbury, however, refuses to take any credit for the program’s success. The credit belongs to the dozens of residents, organizations and businesses that have supported the Health Project and worked collaboratively to address health care issues in the county.

    “This was not me. This was the community. They took control,” Woodbury said. “They figured it out and I get to tell people about it.

    “I’ve had a lot of fun, probably a lot more than I have the right to have,” she said.    

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