Zeller Keeps KHP Healthy

November 7, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Fate often moves a career along. Someone can be in the right place at the right time when fortune smiles broadly on him or her. Or an unexpected encounter with someone not thought of in years does the destiny trick for others.

But for Lynda Zeller, president of Kent Health Plan, neither has been the case. She credits all the people who have taken an interest in her over all the years she has known them.

“It’s been people, people who either led by example or believed in me and helped me take a risk of some sort to broaden my experience. Chuck Zech, of course, is very near the top of that list,” she said.

Zeller took over the helm of Kent Health Plan, which offers health insurance coverage to the uninsured and a discount drug prescription program to seniors, earlier this year. Board members selected her following the February death of Chuck Zech, the much-respected leader of the organization.

Zeller, though, wasn’t a newcomer to Kent Health Plan when she moved into the front office, as she began serving on the board when the nonprofit organization was launched in May 2001. Nor was she a rookie to the realm of nonprofit business when she came to Kent Health Plan, as she was a vice president in charge of communications, government relations and strategic planning with Hope Network Corp.

“That is another great organization. In fact, there is a really strong connection between Hope Network and Kent Health Plan. Hope Network was very active in helping Kent Health Plan get off the ground,” she said, while adding that Hope Network CEO Jim Tuinstra is on the Kent Health Plan board.

“There still is a really cooperative, collaborative relationship (between the two) so I don’t feel like I’ve completely left Hope Network.”

Zeller manages all the offerings Kent Health Plan provides. Those include two insurance coverage programs for low-income residents, an adult dental services program, a medication assistance program for the poor, a discount drug card for seniors, and an insurance plan for businesses with four to 50 employees.

“One of my most important roles is to ensure that Kent Health Plan is a collaborative effort. Kent Health Plan would not exist without the help of all three hospitals, the chamber of commerce and the Grand Rapids Community Foundation,” she said.

Tackling the current health-care challenge, which is an everyday crisis for the 50,000 in the area who are uninsured, is what Zeller relishes the most about her job. Running a close second is how the competing health systems have helped Kent Health Plan become a viable insurer for those most in need. All three — Spectrum Health, Saint Mary’s Health Care and Metro Health — have seats on the organization’s board.

“That collaboration is not unique to West Michigan, but it’s pretty unique in most places,” she said.

Zeller, a native of Madison, Wis., earned her bachelor’s degree in music education from Greenville College, a Christian liberal arts school in Southern Illinois that lies just a sonata or two away from St. Louis. She then went on to earn a public administration master’s degree in health care from Western Michigan University.

Lynda has been married to Tim for 22 years and they have two children. Anastasia, their 18-year-old daughter, is in her first year at Michigan State University. Samuel, their 16-year-old son, is a student at Grandville High School. Tim directs labor relations and serves as general counsel for Lansing Community College and has done so for the past three years.

“Since he has been an attorney, he has almost always done nonprofit type of work. He has also done some teaching, so that is how he landed in that field,” said Lynda, who added that the Zellers like to bike and camp and generally spend as much time as possible outdoors together as a family.

“I like to run. But when I say ‘run’ it always feels like an exaggeration,” she said with a laugh. “I run in frequency, not in speed and in distance, but I hit the 5Ks a lot in the summertime. And I love music. I still like to play the piano, and be active in the church.”

Zeller is also active in the community. She belongs to the local Rotary Club and is a board member of JFON of West Michigan, which stands for Justice For Our Neighbors. JFON provides free legal service on immigration issues and is linked to Zeller’s chosen place of worship, First United Methodist Church at 227 E. Fulton St.

Zeller also devotes her time and talents to the Reentry Roundtable.

“It’s a relatively new community initiative, only about three years old, that is trying to take a business approach and a real aggressive approach to reducing crime and reducing recidivism for offenders,” she said.

As for her immediate future, Zeller expects to be busy over the next few years looking for dollars and enrolling uninsured people. Health-care costs are projected to keep climbing in the coming years, and those increases should keep Zeller actively engaged in trying to find funds to keep the Kent Health Plan programs healthy. At the same time, she will also be earnestly trying to fill those programs with persons in need of coverage.

“The really important thing for me to do is, with the help of our partners, to try to cover a greater percentage of the uninsured in Kent County. Statistics from the Kaiser Foundation Web site estimate that we have about 50,000 adults uninsured in our area. We are covering about 8,000 in our individual coverage programs, a pretty low percentage of the total,” she said.

“Sadly, we have maximized our drawdown capacity from the state. We don’t have the capability of matching any more dollars,” she added. “So there is a big advocacy effort that needs to happen both in finding local dollars to match, and in (receiving) those dollars so we can cover many more individuals in our individual coverage programs.”    

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