Voice of the WHI: Ellen Rabinowitz, County Health Officer and Executive Director of the Washtenaw Health Plan

On August 30, Ellen Rabinowitz will retire from the Washtenaw County Health Department and the Washtenaw Health Plan. She is looking forward to a year-long break and after that expects to re-engage with the community in new ways. Liz Conlin, WHI Communications Committee chair, sat down with Ellen to discuss her history with the WHI and her hopes for the organization’s future.

Q. What originally inspired your passion for community health?
Rabinowitz. I am a social justice advocate and believe we need to provide opportunities for everyone. My entire career has been about creating more opportunity and visibility for  people who have been marginalized and who lack the quality of life that most of us take granted. I started working in the health world in 1995 for the Washtenaw County Health Department and then founded the Washtenaw Health Plan. We use health equity as the organizational compass to guide our efforts so that everyone has access to the resources and opportunities necessary for good health care.

Q. Which health challenges keep you up at night?
Rabinowitz. Health inequities limit people’s abilities to gain access to resources for their well-being. My staff and I focus on how we can address the preventable roots of these inequities–poverty, lack of education, housing, discrimination, and racism–to develop new practices and policies to confront these issues. Even in wealthy Washtenaw County, African American babies are four times more likely to die before their first birthday; African American men live 12 less years than white men; and Hispanic men live 20 less years.

Q. What’s your proudest professional accomplishment?
Rabinowtiz. I feel good about what we have done at the Washtenaw County health department. I am proud of our work on health equity and our efforts to change the leadership paradigm. We are including more people with “lived experiences” to help us make decisions and define the work to be done. We are trying to change the conversation by involving community leaders and cross sector partnerships. The State Innovation Model grant–which is coordinating medical, social, and behavioral care for Livingston and Washtenaw County residents with complex needs–is a great example of creating clinical and community linkages and helping to expand the conversation around the social determinants of health. We didn’t get in this situation overnight. It is long-term work and there is lots to be done. It requires thinking broadly about how to solve these issues.

I am also very proud of the work the Washtenaw Health Plan has done over the years. Over its twenty-plus years, the health plan has helped tens of thousands of people gain access to health care. I feel lucky to be surrounded by a smart and dedicated staff who share a common vision and have been able to execute our mission.

Q. When and why did you join the WHI, and how has it been helpful?
Rabinowitz. Bob Laverty recruited me at the beginning for what was to have been a six-month project to assess the county’s readiness for the Affordable Care Act and the health care coverage expansion that would follow. The county has received great value from the Washtenaw Health Initiative–both from the leadership provided by our local health systems, who have been front and center throughout, and from the tremendous commitment and collaboration from the initiative’s other partners and members. We have also been very fortunate to have CHRT, the Center for Health and Research Transformation, providing backbone support to keep it all moving forward.

Q. What are your hopes for the future of the WHI?
Rabinowitz. The Washtenaw Health Initiative started with a focus on access to health care and has evolved as other issues have emerged.  I would like to see the WHI focus on the county’s significant mental health and substance abuse funding challenges. I hope they continue to be involved in pulling organizations together to frame  the future. Programs such as the State Innovation Model are critical, and I hope this program and others like it continue. True to its mission, the Washtenaw Health Initiative should continue to be a collaborative network for the health systems and our safety net partners. This is an invaluable benefit to our community.

While Rabinowitz will be stepping away from the Washtenaw Health Initiative, she will continue to advise on issues as needed. Please join us in thanking Ellen for her service to the WHI and the county’s under-served populations.