Zeller Locks Up State Position

July 30, 2008
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Leaving Kent Health Plan a few months ago wasn’t the easiest thing that Lynda Zeller has done in her career. But having an opportunity to improve the delivery, quality and cost of care to the state’s prisoners was too good for her to pass up.

Zeller became Kent Health Plan president in 2005 following the death of Chuck Zech, who founded the organization in 2001 and directed its course for the better part of four years. She wasn’t new to the nonprofit when she took over the helm, as she had served on the plan’s board of directors from its inception.

So Zeller had about seven years of her life intimately tied to Kent Health Plan, which provides insurance coverage to county’s poorest residents, before she said “yes” to the Michigan Department of Corrections in April.

Today, Zeller is an energetic, enthusiastic and unashamedly optimistic health services administrator in the Bureau of Health Care Services. Her clientele list tops 50,200 and all are incarcerated at 42 prisons and eight camps scattered throughout the state. For many, this might be a staggering thought, but she is the one person most responsible for their medical care.

“All the health care, whether it’s provided inside a prison or outside in a community, is my responsibility,” she said.

Zeller told HQ there were a couple of reasons she moved from a secure position at Kent Health Plan to overseeing the medical treatments of those in high-security situations. One was she felt the state had done some very impressive work to improve the quality of care given to prisoners, something it accomplished over an 18-month period. Zeller said she interpreted that achievement as an earnest commitment to change, and one that was coming directly from the state’s top officials.

“There was a very serious effort toward creating a culture of quality before I ever got here. You could see that in legislative reports. You could see it in media reports. And if you dug deeper, like I usually do, you could see it internally,” she said.

“I was a volunteer with the Michigan Prison Re-entry Initiative in Grand Rapids and was actually on the steering committee. So I got to see some things at the grassroots level, as well as what I read. So the No. 1 thing that intrigued me was the state was very serious about improving the quality and greater accountability of the services that are provided.”

Another reason was Zeller herself. A deep-rooted passion for change has been hardwired into her genes. So the fact that the state decided to make a change in prisoner care naturally lured her to the post — but not without some heavy tugs on her heartstrings.

“It was a real struggle, I have to tell you. I loved Kent Health Plan and I love the whole notion of the county health plans. And as I’ve told you very often, the goal would be that we have affordable health care everywhere so that you wouldn’t need Kent Health Plan. But I was about two years away from being where I thought we might have a stronger ability to meet that goal,” she said.

“I had intended to be at Kent Health Plan at least two more years because I thought that the community, the federal government and the state government needed at least two more years with the county health plans, as the key part of the safety net, for those plans to make a much bigger difference in health care access.”

The chance, though, for her to play an integral role to positively changing medical care for so many was too good an offer for her to refuse.

“So I hadn’t intended to leave, but this is just one of those opportunities. This type of culture-demanded accountability and health care quality change in a system as big as the state’s doesn’t happen very often,” she said.

Zeller has a small staff in her Lansing office and a trio of medical officers around the state. But size doesn’t seem to matter here. She said they will do their best to continue the trend toward better quality care, which the corrections department closely monitors, and also try to reduce the cost of that care.

“We have a very small central office staff here that manages contracts and all kinds of things. There are several regional medical officers; the state is divided into three regions and there is a medical officer in each one,” said Zeller.

The state is expected to spend $84.3 million this fiscal year for hospital and specialty care for prisoners and roughly $147 million on clinical care across the three regions, according to the Bureau of Health Services. Correctional Medical Services is the contracted provider of medical and specialty services for corrections.

“We are looking for a new chief medical officer, as we have a vacant position, and I’m telling you it’s an exciting place to work right now. The state is very serious about a culture of quality and accountability in health care. The state doesn’t pay very well, compared to other places where medical officers can work. But I’m really hoping some mission-minded physician is going to see this article,” said Zeller, making her print debut as a job recruiter.

Zeller and her husband, Tim, have rented an apartment in Lansing, but have no plans to completely remove themselves from Grand Rapids. Tim is an attorney, and Zeller said he regularly made business trips to the state capital before she landed her position. So living in Lansing, at least on a consistent part-time basis, isn’t a foreign experience for them.

“We are staying in Grand Rapids; it’s our permanent home. But we are staying down here during the week, at least two or three nights a week,” she said. “But my roots are in West Michigan and I serve the whole state, so it really doesn’t matter so much where I live.” HQX

The Cost Of Inmate Care

The Michigan Department of Corrections is expected to spend almost $270 million on medical care for the state’s 50,200 prisoners by the time the current fiscal year ends Sept. 30.

Here are the general areas where those dollars will go.

Note: Pharmacy services are included in clinical and mental health services costs. There were 12,563 outpatient visits, 5,978 inpatient hospital days, and 4,990 trips to the emergency room over the first two quarters of fiscal year 2008.

Source: Michigan Department of Corrections, Report to the Legislature, 2nd Quarter 2008

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