UK HealthCare's Mark Birdwhistell named a 2023 Healthy Kentucky Champion

UK HealthCare's Mark Birdwhistell, recognized as a 2023 Healthy Kentucky Champion

Mark Birdwhistell, senior vice president and chief administrative officer at UK HealthCare, has been named a 2023 Healthy Kentucky Champion by the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.

The Healthy Kentucky Champions Award Program recognizes Kentuckians who are working to improve the health of their community and the Commonwealth. Birdwhistell was nominated by Fran Feltner, director of the University of Kentucky Center of Excellence in Rural Health (CERH). Feltner highlighted Birdwhistell's leadership and the time, energy and dedication he has shown to improve health outcomes in Kentucky during a career spanning more than 40 years. 

“Mark Birdwhistell is a true Healthy Kentucky Champion,” Feltner said. “He understands the struggles of access to health care from rural Appalachia to the rural Delta regions of Kentucky and beyond. I have seen firsthand his commitment to improving the health and wellbeing of all the people across the Commonwealth. I truly could not have thought of a better leader to nominate for this award than my friend and champion, Mark Birdwhistell.”

Prior to his current position at UK HealthCare, Birdwhistell served in senior leadership roles in both the private and public sectors, including secretary for the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services (CHFS) and chief executive officer for CHA Health. While working directly for Kentucky governors, university presidents, and health plan board of directors, Birdwhistell has been a leader in transforming health care in the state.  

His leadership has helped ensure that mental health services were awarded the same considerations and funding as physical health services. He has tirelessly championed those who are medically underserved through Medicaid expansion projects and policy as well as health plan changes. His efforts have helped improve the overall health and health care access of communities across the Commonwealth. Highlights from Birdwhistell’s career include:

  • As secretary of CHFS, he secured federal funding from the Money Follows the Person program to transition persons with developmental disabilities from institutional settings to home and community-based settings allowing them to receive care close to home. 
  • In support of behavioral health care across the state, Birdwhistell helped orchestrate the collaboration between UK HealthCare and the Commonwealth of Kentucky to operate the new Eastern State Hospital, opened in 2013 on UK’s Coldstream Research Campus. In addition to providing UK HealthCare’s medical and administrative expertise at Eastern State Hospital, the collaboration allowed for education and training for a new generation of social workers, nurses and pharmacists in a behavioral health setting. 
  • As an expert in health policy, Birdwhistell received national recognition for his key role in leading Kentucky to redesign and modernize the Medicaid program under the Deficit Reduction Act passed by Congress in November of 2005. The KYHealth Choices health plan included policy reform providing pharmacy and case management for nearly 700,000 Medicaid members.  He also led the development and implementation of a self-funded health plan (Kentucky Employees Health Plan) for 228,000 active and retired state government employees and teachers.
  • He spearheaded two significant health care policy enactments that increased state funding for child health and safety. The 2007 “Boni Frederick Bill,” named for a Western Kentucky social worker murdered on a supervised child welfare visit, provided $3.5 million to fund security improvements for state child welfare and another $2.5 million to hire additional front-line staff. Birdwhistell also secured funding to bring newborn screening tests up to national standards allowing specialized care in a timely manner for the health of Kentucky newborns.
  • Birdwhistell has been instrumental in bringing King’s Daughters Health System under the University of Kentucky umbrella, which was finalized last December. In addition to stabilizing this critical health care access point for Eastern Kentucky, the partnership with King’s Daughters is allowing the expansion of specialty services and health professional training opportunities, creating greater access to high-quality care for more people in Eastern Kentucky.
  • Most recently, he helped lead work on a value-based Medicaid directed payment program, which earned UK HealthCare a national Gage Award from America’s Essential Hospitals, a program that honors successful and creative member hospital programs that improve patient care and meet community needs. 

“Mark’s commitment to advancing health care in Kentucky exemplifies his passion for service and a true understanding of the challenges Kentuckians face,” said Dr. Robert DiPaola, UK provost and co-executive vice president for health affairs. “His work ensures no Kentuckian has to leave the state to receive the care they need.”

“For nearly 16 years, UK HealthCare has been lucky to have a champion like Mark Birdwhistell in our corner,” said Eric Monday, UK co-executive vice president for health affairs. “His work serves as a testament to the profound impact that dedicated individuals can have on the public policies that drive positive change in the Commonwealth.”

Birdwhistell is one of 14 Healthy Kentucky Champions named this year. This year’s other winners include two others from the University of Kentucky — Ellen Hahn, director of the UK Center for Appalachian Research in Environmental Sciences, and Donald Frazier, director of the UK Science Outreach Center.

The 11 other recipients were:

  • Dr. Muhammad Babar, Doctors for Healthy Communities
  • Shelly Baer, Emerald Therapy Center
  • Donovan Blackburn, Pikeville Medical Center
  • Lacretia Dye, Western Kentucky University
  • Jeremy Harrall, Founders Veteran’s Club Inc.
  • Susan Jones, Western Kentucky University
  • Dr. Whitney Jones, Colon Cancer Prevention Project
  • Dr. Karl Lange, Mission Health Lexington
  • Katherine Marks, CHFS Department of Behavioral Health, Developmental and Intellectual Disabilities
  • Rhondell Miller, HOTEL INC.
  • Jerry Ugrin, Primary Plus

“Kentucky faces unique challenges to improving the overall health of its citizens, and these 14 men and women have removed barriers to resources that are changing and saving lives,” said Ben Chandler, president and CEO, Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky. “Because of their vision, hard work, and advocacy, underserved populations in our communities are better because of these Healthy Kentucky Champions.”

Previous UK winners of the Healthy Kentucky Champion award are UK College of Health Sciences’ Patrick Kitzman, CERH Director Fran Feltner and Kentucky Health News reporter Melissa Patrick. More information on the Healthy Kentucky Champion Awards is available here

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