Jeremy Lapedis, Dr.P.H. ’17, has always been interested in health care. At the University of Michigan he was a neuroscience major, where he also studied Spanish and did a bit of traveling. Back then the plan was to combine those interests and become an international physician.
After volunteering with community-based health care organizations though, he realized that he wanted to explore the broader connections between social services, health care, and government — the “stuff that happens outside a doctor’s office,” he explains. His burgeoning interest in public health also dovetailed with his personal commitment to social justice issues.
Lapedis decided to pursue a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and then a doctorate from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Through those programs he came to understand how various social, political, economic, and environmental issues within communities were determinants of health. He also realized he could make a bigger difference working in a place he knew well — his home state of Michigan.
Since moving back, Lapedis has worked for nonprofit groups in roles that focus on improving links between social services, safety-net programs, and health care services for at-risk populations.
“Our health care system waits for patients to come to them rather than going to [patients],” Lapedis says. “Part of how I view my role is to push [those in positions of power in health care and government] outside their comfort zone; to leave their four walls and go to where the people [and the needs] are.”
Lapedis is now executive director of the Washtenaw Health Plan (WHP), a public-private partnership in Washtenaw County. Its mission is to help residents access coverage through Medicare, Medicaid, employer insurance, or the federal insurance marketplace. WHP also provides help with issues directly or indirectly connected to health, such as immigration and housing.
While their mission hasn’t changed in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, they are finding that the needs of their clients are shifting somewhat, at times to areas outside their expertise.
“We’re getting a ton of questions on how to file for unemployment, which we are not totally qualified to answer, so we do our best to point people in the right direction,” says Lapedis. He notes that folks who work for WHP often say their acronym could alternatively stand for “We Help People,” given all they do for their clients.
With the need for far-reaching, quality health care more important than ever, Lapedis says that he’s particularly excited about prospects for a community health care worker project that will involve WHP and Medicaid.
“Community health [care] workers can serve as translators between folks who are marginalized and don’t traditionally access the health care system,” he says.
While the program is still in the planning stages, Lapedis intends to focus the project on specific neighborhoods and hire workers from those same places so they can have a direct impact in the communities where they live.
“I believe that access to health care is a basic human right, and that core value is present in this organization,” Lapedis says.
This story is part of the To Serve Better series, exploring connections between Harvard and neighborhoods across the United States.