By Lynette Norris
Greene Publishing, Inc.
When Kim Barnhill’s colleagues speak of her, phrases like “great leader,” “highly dedicated” and “passionate about her work” are sprinkled liberally in the conversation. It is with very great pleasure and very little surprise that they now speak of her selection by the USF College of Public Health as “Florida Public Health Woman of the Year 2012.”
Barnhill, Administrator of the Madison and Jefferson County Public Health Departments, oversees the public health facilities of two poor, rural North Florida counties; recently, she was also named Acting Administrator for Franklin County, another small, rural county much like Madison and Jefferson.
Michael Napier, President of the Florida Association of County Health Officers (FACHO) and Administrator of the Seminole County Health Department, calls her efforts to improve public health in areas with such limited resources, “a model.” They have included sponsoring programs like the Health-Related Careers and College Fairs in the high schools, increasing access to dental care with a program that includes a mobile dental unit deployed to schools in both counties, and linking Smart Growth Initiatives to increased public opportunities for physical activity (an effort that is of particular importance to Madison County, with the highest rate of obesity in the state).
“Our job as health officers is to improve public health. Kim has the passion and the ability to do that,” said Napier, who has known her for 15 years. During that time, she spent two years serving as Director of Statewide Services in Tallahassee, overseeing the county public health facilities of all 67 counties, working closely with several statewide healthcare committees, lobbying the state legislature on behalf of public health concerns and overseeing policy, funding and budget management issues, among many other responsibilities at the local, state and national level.
But even before she was the Statewide Services Director, she had more than just a local impact; in 1996, she became the Director of Volunteer Services for the Volunteer Health Care Provider Program (VHCPP), then a brand-new statewide public health program. By providing sovreign immunity protection for volunteer doctors, nurses and dentists, it encouraged them to provide basic services to uninsured Floridians who did not qualify for any state assistance. Barnhill shaped it into a program that encompassed the whole health care process, from the initial doctor’s appointment, to what to do about getting medications to how to handle ongoing care issues.
Dr. Kevin Sherin, President of the American Association for Public Health Physicians and also a member of FACHO, was also thrilled about Barnhill’s award. “Isn’t that cool? I’ve worked with Kim for nine years, and I know her as a high-energy person and a high-energy leader.”
Sherin also spoke of the VHCPP as one of her many legacies. “Think of the thousands of hours of volunteer services that one program has been able to deliver. That is just one of her many outstanding achievements.”
Winnie Holland, Administrator of the Public Health Department for both Union and Bradford Counties, knows what it’s like to take care of not one, but two small, poor, rural counties. For the seven years that she has known Kim Barnhill, “She has been an inspiration to me, because she’s such a champion for small, rural counties.”
She is also a champion who expects excellence. “‘Just because we’re small, doesn’t mean we can’t be the best!’”
Marsha Lindeman, entering her second year as Administrator for the Gulf County Department of Health, transitioned from two decades in the treatment side of health (hospital/acute care), to the prevention side (public health) about five years ago, and it was then that she met Barnhill. Impressed that the latter was such a strong public health officer for Madison and Jefferson, she spoke of Barnhill’s skill as a communicator/speaker for effectively delivering her message, whether it was about a tobacco prevention program or an environmental health issue, to any type of audience: legislators, county officials, city officials, civic groups, members of the public, or patients and clients – all the while, keeping that message focused on public health. “I’ve always been impressed with that,” said Lindeman.
“Kim is at the other end of the phone for any kind of question I have, whether it’s a personnel question or a question about a rabies outbreak,” said Lindeman. “She is always there for me and I was thrilled that she was chosen. I can’t think of anyone more deserving.”
Dr. Les Beitsch, FSU College of Medicine, Center for Medicine and Public Health, stated that, “Kim Barnhill is an extraordinary public health advocate, a one person team (dynamo really), always ready tackle critical issues, even if it places her directly in the path of immovable forces! Who better to be Public Health Woman of the Year? In her case it should be of the Decade!”
“We view Kim as a hero,” said Dr. Donna Petersen, Dean of the College of Public Health, USF, the organization that each year chooses the recipient of the award. “But she believes it to be an honor and a privilege to be able to do this work. She has not only affected countless lives through her work but the positive work environment she creates enables others to work effectively. It was distinct privilege to recognize Kim Barnhill with the 2012 Florida Public Health Woman of the Year Award.”
On the human side, Mike Napier regards Barnhill as a personal friend, as well as a colleague, an incredible “super-mom” who has raised three children while working so tirelessly in the public health field.
“She gave a great acceptance speech, likening her work to taking care of a family,” he said. “You do all these things behind the scenes that nobody notices unless you stop doing them.”
“She’s a great lady at home…a kind-hearted lady who always wants to help people,” he added. “And that says a lot about who she is as a person.”