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The health of Kansans is declining. The new Kansas Health Foundation CEO wants to reverse that

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Hugo Phan
/
KMUW
Ed O'Malley is president and CEO of the Kansas Health Foundation

Ed O'Malley, the new president and CEO of the Wichita-based Kansas Health Foundation, is working to make Kansas a healthier place to live.

In the mid-1990s, Kansas was ranked in the top 10 in national surveys that rated states by the health of their citizens. Today, Kansas has tumbled into the mid-30s.

Ed O’Malley, the new president and CEO of the Kansas Health Foundation, wants to change the state’s direction. The Wichita-based Health Foundation was created in 1985 using proceeds from the sale of Wesley Medical Center. It works with nonprofits and other organizations to improve the health of Kansans.

O’Malley talked with The Range about why he left the Kansas Leadership Center for his new job; the need to address health disparities; the status of expanding Medicaid; and how doing improv comedy turned into a job skill.

The interview was edited for length and clarity.


Interview Highlights

The foundation's mission statement says it wants to improve health for all Kansans by reducing health disparities and focusing on health equity. What does health equity look like to you? 

To me, health equity means that your health, no matter where you live, no matter what background you come from, that shouldn't affect your health. And right now that's not the case. There are major health disparities based on your level of income, based on race and ethnicity, based on what zip code you happen to live in. And that's unacceptable.

What will you bring from what you learned at the Leadership Center to your new role at the Health Foundation?

First and foremost is a belief that you make game-changing transformative progress when you get everyone exercising leadership, or at least enough of everyone … Progress is never about that one amazing individual who perhaps gets elected to office or becomes CEO of some magical institution. Progress occurs when you get lots of people, especially the people closest to the challenges on the ground in communities, empowered and exercising leadership and engagement so that they can create the conditions for themselves to thrive.

What do you hope to accomplish in your first year in the job? 

The first key is developing the strategic framework for the organization. On one hand, the Kansas Health Foundation has a healthy financial resource, but the gross domestic product of Kansas is $160 billion. The Kansas Health Foundation gives away about $20 million a year. So if you think about what the Kansas Health Foundation is giving away each year, and it’s trying to influence really that whole $160 billion in some ways, right?

So on one hand, we have a great financial resource. On the other hand, developing the strategic framework for how we will deploy it matters so much.

The Health Foundation has been a longtime supporter of expanding Medicaid in Kansas. Is that still a focus?

One thing I think we have to remember is Medicaid expansion is a strategy. In my opinion, it's a good one. It's a strategy to help more Kansans have affordable health coverage. And we know that whether you have health coverage or not … is a major determinant of your health and your family's health.

If it's not the right strategy, let's come up with a different one to help those people who aren't right now covered and who would be covered under Medicaid expansion. To me, what seems unacceptable is to just do nothing.

For a variety of reasons, you're the fourth CEO of the Kansas Health Foundation in the last roughly three years. Has a lack of continuity affected the organization?

It's been a tough three years for every organization in the world, given the pandemic and social unrest. So yes, I would say a number of changes in the CEO role has affected, like you would imagine, the organization.

There's an incredible team of people here who have been doing great work and have been focused on important and big things. That work continues, and now we're really ready to move forward and make the biggest difference we can for the health of all Kansans.

You were the first employee of the Kansas Leadership Center and helped build an organization that has delivered leadership training to more than 15,000 people. … Why give that up and move to the Health Foundation?

Two things come to mind. Number one, that team at the Kansas Leadership Center is phenomenal, and frankly …. they need to take it to heights I'm not able to take them to. And I think we are getting to that point, so they're going to go higher than I could ever have taken them myself.

But the second reason is for 16 years now, I've been connected to the Kansas Health Foundation via the Kansas Leadership Center. And the idea of trying to put the puzzle together of all these different investments that the Health Foundation has made over the years – helping foster community foundations all around Kansas, building other institutions like the Kansas Health Institute, along with the Kansas Leadership Center, and increasingly a greater focus on reducing health disparities across our state – putting that puzzle together just is such an attractive challenge that it made sense to make the big move all the way next door to the Kansas Health Foundation.

What will Ed O'Malley, the person, bring to this job? 

I think I'm predisposed to help people spend more time in diagnosis. I think we really need to diagnose what got us into this situation of a rapidly declining state health ranking. And until we really diagnose that, I think we have to be careful about assuming we know the interventions that'll take us back up the health rankings.

I think I also bring to the table an ability to work across difference in this state. I learned that ability when I was a young staffer for former Gov. Bill Graves. I practiced that ability when I was in the Legislature, and I've helped others learn that ability to work across difference, which I think is what leadership is often all about.

You spent four years in the Kansas Legislature (2003-07) before coming to the Leadership Center. Will that work in the political arena benefit you in your new role, especially in terms of policy?

I think that background will be useful. And I think in two ways: Number one, I understand how critical policy is, and I also understand the limitations of policy. We need the policy to do what we need done, and that's still likely insufficient.

Ultimately, we need to empower the people on the ground in communities to create the conditions for themselves to thrive.

Tell me something about Ed O'Malley that might surprise people. 

I used to be a part of an improv comedy team. I was not one of the funny guys, but I had people around me who were funny and I was willing to make a fool outta myself.

The experience of being on stage, not knowing what's gonna happen next and having people look at you and expect you to do something … Talk about a great skill set to develop.

Editor’s note: The Kansas Health Foundation helps fund the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of public radio stations in Kansas, including KMUW.

Tom joined KMUW in 2017 after spending 37 years with The Wichita Eagle where he held a variety of reporting and editing roles. He also is host of The Range, KMUW’s weekly show about where we live and the people who live here. Tom is a board member of the Public Media Journalists Association, a board member of the Kansas chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and an adjunct instructor in the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University.