Transforming health care

MacArthur fellow climbs nonprofit to tackle Alaska Native health issues.

By Jennifer Whytock

When Katherine Gottlieb received a call recently from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announcing she would receive a “genius” grant, she cried.

“Sometimes it’s hard for me to believe in myself, and getting this gives me the confidence to go forward with ideas I haven’t said out loud,” says Gottlieb, president and CEO of the Southcentral Foundation in Anchorage, Alaska. “It felt like the heavens opened up and poured out on my head.”

She is most excited about the award as an affirmation of her work, and has not decided how she will use the $500,000 prize given to each of the 24 fellows for their “originality, creativity and potential to do more in the future.”

Gottlieb, an Alaska Native, started as a receptionist at the foundation in 1987, with plans only to support her six children and husband while he was in aircraft mechanic school, and no thoughts of advancing in the organization.

As the foundation quickly grew, though, Gottlieb moved from receptionist, to working with contracts, to associate planner, to department director, becoming CEO within four years.

When she joined in 1987, the foundation had 25 staff members, but today has over 1,200 employees who provide health services to more than 46,000 Alaska Natives and Native Americans.

“I saw that Southcentral Foundation had the chance to make huge differences in our current health care system. So, I became serious about a career, and decided I needed to finish my education, to finish my bachelor’s degree, and then get a master’s,” she says.

Katherine Gottlieb

Job: President and CEO, Southcentral Foundation

Born: 1952, Old Harbor, Alaska

Family: Married, 6 children, 19 grandchildren

Education: B.A., business administration, Alaska Pacific University; MBA, Alaska Pacific University

Hobbies: Learning to fly, making bead bracelets, journal writing

If she could redo her life: Would not have returned to work so soon, when youngest child just in kindergarten

Career high: Being named MacArthur fellow

Career low: Firing staff

She received her degree in 1990, then studied for an MBA rather than a master’s in public health because, she says, while she needed some health background at the foundation, she believed it was more important to know how to manage funds and watch the bottom line. Under her leadership, the foundation took control of and transformed primary health care provision for Alaska Natives and Native Americans in Anchorage and neighboring regions.

Previously, people from these communities could not have their own doctor, but rather went to an emergency room for service, but now they have same-day access to their primary-care doctors.

During her 14 years as head of the foundation, which has a $100 million annual budget and receives federal and state funding, Medicare and Medicaid payments, and grants from national foundations, Gottlieb has helped create 75 service programs.

She is proud of the Family Wellness Warriors Initiative, a five-year old program that tackles child abuse and neglect, and domestic abuse.

While trying to gain community support for the program, Gottlieb won over most women, but encountered resistance and disinterest among men and native leaders, she says, so she devised an approach to appeal to the native warrior in them, and found success.

“We called out the warrior in a man, looking at the strength they exhibited in the old days when they were willing to give their life for their tribes and families,” she says. “We are breaking the silence.”

Gottlieb likes to spend her free time visiting with her family of six children and 19 grandchildren, writing in her journal and doing beadwork for bracelets.

She and her husband also are learning to fly private airplanes, one of the main modes of transportation in a state with only one major highway.

After traveling all over the world, Gottlieb believes Alaska is the most beautiful land, and if she could change anything in the world, it would be to have healing from the destruction of the native people and land of Alaska.

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