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Mary Lou Hennrich Receives Highest Honor from Public Health Institute

The luncheon also honored the Oregon Health Equity Alliance and Wilber Ramirez-Rodriguez.
November 7, 2013
Heralded as a public health hero, Mary Lou Hennrich couldn’t hold back her exuberance when accepting the Lifetime Excellence Award from the Oregon Health Policy Institute.   “Now I know how Oscar winners feel,” she said when the overflow crowd gathered at the Multnomah Athletic Club gave her a standing ovation.    Since 2002, the Institute has recognized individuals and groups whose efforts have helped improve the lives of Oregonians, calling them the Billi Odegaard Public Health Genius Awards,  Odegaard, who ran the Multnomah County Health Department for 30 years before retiring in 1999, had been Hennrich’s first supervisor as a public health nurse.     “I wouldn’t be receiving this award without Bill,” acknowledged Hennrich. “She planted the seeds and set me off to do these things. I owe her the deepest of gratitude.”   Taking over the reins at the Institute 12 years ago, Hennrich led efforts to combat one of this nation’s deadly killers -- obesity – by working to eliminate sugar-sweetened beverages from school vending machines, improve school lunch menus and achieve ground-breaking progress on menu labeling.   “I’m one lucky woman,” Hennrich told her colleagues, family and lifelong friends. “I’ve worked long and hard to make the world a better place and create a more equitable and just society and am humbled and honored by this award.”    Hennrich is probably best known as the founder and first CEO of CareOregon, which opened its doors as a Medicaid health plan in 1994 and had 9,500 members in 14 Oregon counties.   The woman she hired in 2000 to run legislative and public affairs, Ruby Haughton Pitts, flew in from Chicago to toast her mentor.   “We share a deep spiritual bond; this is a woman that I love, admire, respect and call my friend,” said Haughton Pitts, now the vice president of external affairs at OCHIN, which, through the help of CareOregon, has become of the nation’s largest health information networks that’s improved the integration and delivery of health care services.     “Mary Lou’s had an amazing three plus decades of service to Oregonians,” and began her career as a public health nurse, she told the audience, “which exposed her to people and places that softened her heart and toughened her skin. Mary Lou always looked for the good in people and mustered a spirit of partnership and collaboration that spanned the private corporate boardroom to the public bathroom. She always persevered, and even demonstrated how to fall down and gracefully get back up – and really make a difference.”    Hennrich’s accomplishments didn’t stop there. She championed of the role of public health nurses, promoted breastfeeding laws and regulations that took hold in Oregon and across the nation, led efforts to obtain third-party payments for services provided by nurses and helped initiate and develop school-based clinics, her friend continued.    “Mary Lou remains a powerful advocate for public health and she continues her quest as an industry consultant,” Haughton Pitts said. “Be it policy making or direct care for vulnerable patients – Mary Lou has her oar in the water collaborating with others on the next round of solutions to our local and national issues.    “Lastly, I want to say that Mary Lou is an amazing collaborator and one of the most inclusive people that I know. She inspires others with words of wisdom and never hesitates to pull out her mental or physical Rolodex to leverage a contact on behalf or an individual in need or a great cause. She believes in second chances and does not throw people way but finds their sweet spot and capitalizes on it. She pays her good fortune forward so that the next generation has the information and resources to continue on.”    The Institute also honored Wilber Ramirez-Rodriguez, RDH, BSDH, EPDH, as an emerging leader.   A dentist in his native country of Peru, Wilber moved to Oregon and became a dental hygienist to provide oral care to underserved communities and focus on public health. A faculty member at the Pacific University Dental Health Science Program, he manages the “Smile Care Everywhere” program.    He also created Dental Reach, a dental program that partners with Tuality Healthcare ¡Salud! Services to provide preventive oral health care to more than 400 migrant and seasonal vineyard and winery workers.    Finally, the Oregon Health Equity Alliance received the Exceptional Group Award. Created in 2012, it’s a partnership that includes APANO (Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon), Oregon Latino Health Coalition, Oregon Action, Center for Intercultural Organizing, Urban League of Portland, and Causa Oregon. The Alliance aims to create a strong coalition to build awareness and political power to address the root causes of health disparities in Portland and statewide, and focuses on access to higher education and employment to help people climb out of poverty, as well as access to culturally competent quality healthcare.   During the 2013 Legislature, it achieved success for seven priorities to reduce health disparities in Oregon including cultural competency in health related professions, health equity data-collection, pre-natal care for all women, tuition equity for college students, driver’s license for all Oregonians, traditional healthcare workers commission and natural hair-care.