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Pioneers: Janet Olszewski

As Janet Olszewski describes it, she's doing "work that's good for the soul." Olszewski, Director of the Michigan Department of Community Health (MDCH), earned her M.S.W. in 1975, focusing on administration and policy, with a specialty in gerontology. "In the early 1970s, there weren't many schools that offered both. The University of Michigan did."

Olszewski says she became interested in working with the elderly after graduating from Boston University. She spent a year at the Women's Educational and Industrial Union in Boston, working on the senior companion program, where she matched volunteers with older citizens. "I helped with the USDA surplus food program-this was before food stamps-and drove people to medical appointments. From the time I was in early high school. I knew I wanted to work in a profession that helped people. I am intrigued by the interaction of people with their environment, with society."

Created in 1996, MDCH is a consolidation of parts of the former Department of Public Health, Department of Mental Health, the Medical Services Administration, the Office of Drug Control Policy, Office of Services to the Aging and the Crime Victims Services Commission. Appointed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm, Olszewski began her position January 1, 2003.

From 2000 to 2003, Olszewski was vice president for government programs and regulation at M-CARE, a nonprofit managed care organization owned by the University of Michigan. Before that, she spent 23 years working for the State of Michigan.

Like most state departments, the MDCH is battling a tight budget. "Since we took office, we had to issue an executive order to reduce the fiscal 2003 budget," Olszewski says. "We're in the process of reducing the '04 budget and we're preparing an 'OS budget for a fiscal climate that doesn't get any better. That's our backdrop-we're helping the governor preserve programs for children, the elderly and disabled in a difficult fiscal climate."

With a lean budget and burgeoning responsibilities, some might shy away from the job. But Olszewski seems to relish it as she lists the MDCH's highest priorities.

Olszewski stresses public health. "It's our first line of prevention," she says. "We're emphasizing prevention. Chronic diseases represent 70% of health care costs. We have to stress healthy lifestyles, healthy behavior, exercise, eating properly. That's a major focus."

Mental health is another area for focus and study. "How mental health care is provided is an issue in Michigan. Where it is provided is an issue-the remaining state hospitals are all in the southern part of the state. We need to figure out how to provide care and security for folks in the community appropriately."

Finally, child services and long-term care are priorities, as well.

It's an overwhelming prospect, and it's not a comprehensive list. But Olszewski says she's pleased with the progress made in the time she's been in the position.

Olszewski has a strong background in Medicare and Medicaid administration, and says she worries that the recent changes in Medicare might be confusing to the people it could help. "It's very important that we provide prescription drug coverage for seniors:' she says. "I sincerely hope that this will be a benefit. But I think it's complex and may be confusing and could lead to people not using the benefit appropriately."

Is there time for anything besides work? Olszewski laughs. 'Tm a backpacker, although I don't have enough free time for that. I love to go out in the woods and camp for a week. I have a good friend and she and I have been going out camping for a week for 18 or 19 years." She also enjoys gardening and running.

If her job seems overwhelming, she says she was ready for it. "I really believe that my time in Ann Arbor prepared me well. I received good training and counsel, and I appreciate the background it gave me. It also made me rabid Wolverine fan."

-Catherine Conlan is a freelance writer who lives near Lindstrom, Minnesota. 

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