Louisiana Medicaid Director Ruth Kennedy Retires After Successful Career Helping Children and Families

Medicaid Director Ruth Kennedy recently retired from the Louisiana Department of Health.  She began her Medicaid career working in a field eligibility office about 40 years ago. Kennedy is well known for her tenacity and dedication to improving the lives of children and families in Louisiana. She successfully connected children with Medicaid and LaCHIP coverage by streamlining application and renewal procedures, promoting agency culture change, and engaging community partners in outreach and enrollment efforts. Her leadership was instrumental in successfully putting out the welcome mat for newly eligible Medicaid beneficiaries when the state expanded Medicaid last year. Kennedy is a super star who has inspired many of us far beyond the borders of Louisiana. We would like to share with you a tribute written by one of her many admirers on the occasion of her retirement.

A Tribute to Ruth Kennedy by Donna Cohen Ross

I couldn’t have known it then, but when I stepped off the plane at the end of the D.C. to New Orleans flight, I was on the threshold of a 20-year friendship with a professional kindred spirit and valued partner. And to think my rendezvous with Ruth Kennedy was almost derailed by a taxi driver who flatly refused to take me to the address I handed him. “Ma’am,” he said, “That’s not a church, it’s a bowling alley, and a decrepit one. You don’t want to go there.” But I did want to go and finally convinced him to drive me. In the bowling alley–turned-church, a children’s advocacy organization had set up the meeting for local groups to learn about the new law establishing the Children’s Health Insurance Program and Louisiana’s plans for operating the program, soon to be known as LaCHIP. As the outreach director at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, my role was to talk about state policy choices. Ruth’s job, as the state’s “Implementer–in-Chief”, was to talk about plans for moving forward.

It was meant to be a one-two punch, but honestly, Ruth delivered such hard-hitting remarks, I found myself wondering why I had even been invited. Ruth was all business, as well as smart and strategic. It was clear that the children and families of Louisiana were in capable, dedicated hands. And, it became even more clear over time that Ruth would use any and every tool at her disposal to make sure children got the most out of the health benefits LA CHIP had to offer.

Soon after I returned to D.C., I got a call from Ruth. She had been listening intently and also studying and planning. Her goal was to adopt as many of the CHIP law’s simplification tools as possible and apply them to all children. Joining her on her quest for a simple, accessible program was hard work, but inspiring and invigorating. She launched one idea after another, using administrative data to back up every move and make the case for more. Through the process, this New Yorker got a taste of Louisiana sensibilities – what I think of most fondly as “Ruthisms”:

  • Regarding continuous eligibility, Ruth pointed out, “There’s a hole in the bucket and I aim to plug it up. We’re losing children who are still eligible for coverage!”
  • About the administrative burdens of the asset test, Ruth said, “The juice just isn’t worth the squeeze! These families don’t have assets and we’re spending money trying to prove what they don’t have.”
  • In support of reducing paper documentation requirements, Ruth explained, “We’re verifying everything down to the air in their tires. What a waste to demand proof of things that don’t even matter!”
  • As you can see, Ruth is a master of language. She alone has used the term “ex parte” as an adjective, a noun and a verb!

Ruth is a pioneer, fearless and resourceful. More than once she has made her mark by being the first to figure out how to make a new policy really work. She does it by researching to the Nth degree the policies and practices that need to be changed or leveraged. If the Devil is in the details, Ruth must have brought an air-conditioner down with her as she unraveled all the nitty gritty details she would need to smooth the path to Express Lane Eligibility, and most recently, SNAP-assisted Medicaid enrollment under the state’s Medicaid expansion. I have never seen anyone so ready to roll up her sleeves to turn a promising idea into lasting, reliable protocol.

Ruth cares about data – and indeed, the numbers help shine the light Ruth’s accomplishments:

  • As a result of her efforts, eligibility denials for procedural reasons at renewal declined from double digits to less than 1 percent.
  • When she flipped the switch on Express Lane Eligibility, more than 10,000 Louisiana children were enrolled in coverage — literally overnight.
  • The constellation of policy changes she implemented earned Louisiana millions in CHIPRA performance bonuses.
  • And her all-out crowning achievement – implementation of Louisiana’s Medicaid expansion –produced enrollment of more than 400,000 people in just 10 months.

Ruth’s accomplishments are the evidence of her deep and abiding compassion and respect for the families and individuals who, without her efforts, would have remained uninsured, sick and struggling. But her caring does not end there. Ruth has always shown how much she values her staff and the community organizations that are working hard every day to connect Louisianans to health coverage and care. I have never visited Louisiana without Ruth arranging a tour of local community agencies or organizing a focus group of staff members who have important insights to share. She has always elevated and expressed the utmost admiration for their achievements.

And now, after 40 years working in Louisiana’s Medicaid agency – from eligibility worker to director, with stops in between – Ruth Kennedy is calling it a day. But I feel sure that she is not closing the book, and before long a new chapter will be written. Hers is a story of commitment, compassion, resilience, service and leadership. A story like that doesn’t just end.

It has been my profound honor — a labor of love — to work with Ruth, to explore with her, to learn from her, sometimes to be enraged with her, always to be awestruck by her, to laugh with her, and to call her my friend.

Thank you, Ruth – and best wishes for good health and a productive, fulfilling future!