By Dawn Kingsley, MSHA, Vice President of Payer Contracting and Strategy
As I approach my five year anniversary at Centerstone, a year of which has been essentially defined by the pandemic, I have been reflecting on my work and experiences here. As someone in a non-caregiver position, I am not on the front line of the good work we do for our clients. However, as Vice President of Payer Contracting & Strategy, I have felt our mission in a real and meaningful way over the past year. My team and I work with health plans and insurance companies to contract our clinicians and facilities as part of the managed care networks. While not direct care, it is important work that had to continue despite the pandemic, related safety measures, and the personal traumas and tragedies that encompassed my life over the past 12 months.
To tell my pandemic story, I need to start on the day the public health emergency was declared. My mom and I had planned a trip to the St. Louis Cardinals spring training facility in Jupiter, Florida. It was a much anticipated celebration of her one year cancer free milestone. Our flight was scheduled for 5:30 a.m. on March 13, 2020. The state of emergency was declared and the entire country began shutting down the day before we were scheduled to leave.
Earlier in the week I had been in an executive strategy session, and Friday, March 13, was supposed to be the final day of the session, which I had planned to miss. I ended up attending the final strategy session, which turned out to be an entirely different meeting. Friday’s planned agenda was scrapped, and we spent the day figuring out how we could continue to safely serve clients while also keeping staff safe.
What came next was nothing short of a business miracle. Our Chief Executive Officer, David Guth, made the immediate decision to begin transitioning a majority of our workforce to a remote work environment. In the beginning we all thought this crisis would last a month or two. Now, that temporary remote status has evolved to indefinite for many of our staff who have not yet transitioned back to in-office work settings.
Centerstone mobilized an army of IT staff to get computers, monitors, cameras, desks, chairs and anything else staff needed to work remotely. I have worked remotely for years and had a heavy travel schedule pre-COVID, so for me this transition wasn’t all that difficult. However, for some, it was a whole new way of thinking about how to do their jobs; not to mention the monumental task of managing kids who were now home, spouses who were also working from home, and lots of dogs and cats.
In one of our first post-shutdown calls, our CEO said to the entire team, “There will be no apologies for kids, or dogs, or interruptions, or anything else that comes with working remotely.” And he meant it. Every time someone would apologize for a dog barking or kids running through the house, he would repeat his declaration. “No Apologies!” Staff worked from dining room tables and sofas and kitchen islands, closets and even a tool shed until it got too hot in the summer.
It was amazing to be a part of this transition. As a team we overcame many obstacles and our clients continued to receive services. For the next three months, Centerstone’s leadership team continued daily zoom calls focusing on overcoming barriers, delivering technology solutions while clinicians continued to see clients. I and many others were on zoom calls from 7 a.m. – 7 p.m., sometimes with no breaks. We persevered and converted a small telehealth operation into telehealth being the primary mechanism of delivering care in a matter of a couple of weeks.
Like the rest of the world, the pandemic hit us all hard. In our work serving individuals with complex behavioral health needs, staff and clients felt the stress of fear, change and the huge unknown of what happens next. Like everyone, I was managing kids being out of school, dogs barking on zoom calls, internet outages and technology issues while trying to stay as safe as possible. The isolation and the uncertainty weighed on me and sometimes it felt unbearable. Having young children at home, older parents next door with health risks and a husband who works in a critical infrastructure job, we were always fearful of bringing the virus to my parents or ourselves. But I knew my company was keeping me safe, I had a good work plan, and we had strict sanitation protocols in place at home. For me, it felt like everything was working.
As the months wore on, I heard from a number of friends and colleagues in other companies and industries. In some cases they were not allowed to work from home even when it was possible. In other situations, bosses didn’t believe the pandemic was real and didn’t enforce or encourage safety measures. While others were ping-ponged back and forth between the office and home every other week. All of these friends were juggling the same kids, family, and work stressors, but these situations made everything more difficult. Every time I heard one of their stories I was thankful for the care and guidance of Centerstone leadership and in particular our CEO. He never wavered from his stance of keeping clients and staff safe. He did this while navigating an uncertain financial impact in the wake of COVID and the same fear and unknown future. As a result of his decision-making and mobilization of forces to move thousands of staff members home, he ensured staff and clients had minimal exposure.
For me personally, our safety measures were not enough. I lost my father to COVID on October 6, 2020. He had some health issues related to his service in Vietnam, but they were being managed; he was doing relatively well. After a routine doctor’s appointment, his medical care team decided to admit him for a couple of days due to a blood condition. He ended up staying 11 days. After being discharged home without a COVID test, he was readmitted to another hospital 36 hours later, and we were told he had COVID. He was immediately placed on a ventilator.
He ended up being hospitalized for another 9 days before succumbing to heart and lung failure as a result of contracting the COVID virus. During his illness, I was his care navigator on behalf of my mother. I was still working and caring for my family and basically hanging on for dear life. While my life was falling apart, not only did Centerstone support me, they wrapped their arms around me. When I had to cancel or reschedule meetings it was always met with understanding and kindness. I was never asked “where is the report?” or “when will that contract be finished?” It was always, “How can we support you?” or “Take as much time as you need” or “What do you need?” or “Just know we love you.”
The last year has been incredibly hard for so many families. As the United States passes the unimaginable milestone of 500,000 lives lost to COVID, I fear the hard times are just beginning. We are grieving as a country with so many individuals who have stories like mine. As a Centerstone employee, I still feel my safety and health are paramount. I feel loved and cared for as I work my way through my grief. I often get text messages, emails, or phone calls from colleagues checking on me months after we buried my father. Centerstone isn’t just a company; we are a family. I feel very blessed to be a part of an organization who puts their noble purpose at the forefront of what they do every day: delivering care that changes people’s lives. I know because they changed mine.
Dawn Kingsley, MSHA, is Vice President for Payer Contracting and Strategy at Centerstone’s national headquarters, where she directs all payer contracting initiatives and provides strategic guidance for Centerstone and its business units.
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