Unfortunately, Arkansas ranks highly on a national scale in poverty and poor health. Together, these two debilitating factors have created a health care need in Central Arkansas.
Amy Johnson, an Arkansas native and Bowen alumna has been working to make a difference for those in need in her community. Johnson has been named one of the 10 recipients to receive the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leaders Award for 2012, which she accepted on October 17, in San Antonio. This award highlights men and women who are working against obstacles in their health care communities.
After growing up in Fort Smith, Johnson kept Arkansas on her map by going to Hendrix College to study Psychology. She fell into working toward bettering health care in Arkansas in what she calls “a round-about way.” After Hendrix, she waited tables before getting a job as a social service worker. During her time working with adults with disabilities, her direction changed: “That really got me interested in the law,” she said.
After graduating from Bowen, Johnson spent some six years working in private practice as well as a year working for the Arkansas Supreme Court.
In 2005, one of her Hendrix acquaintances, Matt House, emailed her about working to open a free health clinic. On a volunteer basis, Johnson met with the downtown faith community, and countless others to establish the Harmony Health Clinic.
“We opened our doors in December of 2008,” she said. After three years of planning the project finally came into fruition. Unfortunately, John says, “It was difficult, because in 2008 was right when the economic downfall started.” However, the hiring of an Executive Director for Harmony Health Clinic really helped to keep the non-profit going: “A lot of really cool things fell into place. In August of 2008 […] we hired Eddie Pannell.”
The clinic is free and supports individuals with low-income who don’t qualify for Medicaid or Medicare, and cannot afford health insurance. Johnson explained that most employers in Arkansas are small businesses that cannot afford health insurance for their employees. With this in mind, she has a vision to open many free health clinics to serve the growing need.
To date the clinic has served 2,000 patients who suffer from conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and obesity. The care that patients can receive at the free clinic helps prevent larger health problems from forming later; which would be even more expensive for the already low-income individuals. Johnson feels that the clinic is really making a difference. “To now hear stories of people whose lives have been changed […] is incredible,” she said. The clinic is only one of two free clinics in Arkansas to provide dental services. The before and after stories of people receiving dentures is inspiring: “People who had not been able to smile and not been able to eat, are now confident. That’s really the coolest thing.”
In looking to the future for the clinic she said, “We’re keeping a close watch on health care. In 2014 change will affect the typical profile [of Harmony Health patients.]” Dental services will continue to be important after 2014, because they are not included in the Affordable Care Act.
Along with volunteering her time to the Health Clinic, Johnson makes a difference day to day at her full-time job. Her position as the first Executive Director of the Arkansas Access to Justice Commission allows her to directly affect those in need, and carry on her volunteer work on a larger scale. Currently, she has helped to raise more than $2.1 million to support access to legal aid for low-income people. “Poverty is not a simple issue,” said Johnson; “The work that I’m doing in my day-job […] addresses the civil and legal needs of those with low-income.”
The national program director of Community Health Leaders, Janice Ford Griffin, said that the selection committee was drawn to Johnson because of her determination. “The impact of Amy’s efforts to improve the health of the residents of Central Arkansas is an outstanding example of creativity across a broad spectrum,” Griffin said. “Her legal background and earlier experience as a social worker provided a tremendous foundation for the leadership she contributed to the establishment of Harmony Health Clinic.”
The Robert Woods Foundation to date has honored more than 200 Community Health Leaders since it’s inception in 1993. For more information about the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leaders visit: http://www.communityhealthleaders.org/.