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COLUMBUS — A change of course allowed Will McInnis to find his passion working in community health centers.

The Jackson, Mississippi, native is the new executive director of East Central District Health Department, a role he assumed in late November. He replaces Rebecca Rayman, who was let go in March after 18 years with the district.

McInnis comes to ECDHD with a background working in the health industry at centers in Louisiana, Texas, Tennessee and Washington state. At the local department, which covers Platte, Colfax, Boone and Nance counties, McInnis said he wants to establish his vision for health centers.

“It doesn’t matter what race or culture you are. Everybody at some point or time has a need for health care. Being able to provide services that are affordable and accessible for them fulfills my mission. That is what drives me,” he said.

McInnis originally used a bachelor’s degree in sports medicine to land a job working as an athletic trainer for the Washington Redskins. The constant travel and desire to start a family led him to pursue a master’s degree in health care administration with the intention of working on a hospital administration team.

An internship at Jackson-Hinds Comprehensive Health Center in Mississippi took him on a different path.

McInnis, 39, comes from a family with two working parents — his mother was a nurse and his father a principal. They always had health insurance. While at the health center in Mississippi, he was introduced to patients who struggled financially and had no insurance. One patient in particular who he helped get seen by medical staff personally expressed gratitude to McInnis. That moment changed him.

“A mission of a federally qualified health center is we see people regardless of their ability to pay. That patient got seen and she came back and hugged me and thanked me. I saw that I could make a difference in people’s lives,” he said.

The thought of working in hospital administration was replaced by his passion for advocating for people who rely on these health centers.

“This is more fulfilling, helping people,” he said.

McInnis’ last position was chief operating officer at SWLA Center for Health Services in Lake Charles, Louisiana, a four-site facility with an $18 million annual operating budget.

ECDHD is a smaller operation.

The Good Neighbor Community Health Center, which offers medical, dental and mental health care at reduced costs, is also located within the Columbus health department building. A Good Neighbor clinic in Fremont is associated with the local one.

Health care centers across the country could face a reduction in services and staff because of uncertainty over federal funding. Congress did pass a short-term spending bill that funds the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and community health centers, but without a long-term solution, cuts to programs and staffing could come in the future.

“We are on the chopping block right now for our federal funding,” McInnis said.

He did say the situation might not be so dire at ECDHD. About a third of the district’s $9 million annual budget comes from federal money, a smaller chunk than some health centers.

“We are not as worried about it here because we are in a better financial situation than other health centers are. We have a health department, too. Having two funding streams helps us out tremendously,” he said.

With both the health department, which focuses more on prevention and education, and medical clinic under one roof, McInnis said a goal of his is to have the two operations work hand in hand.

The new executive director said he will work toward that objective with Caitlin Schneider, who recently took over as chief public health officer for the district.

Good Neighbor, one of nine federally qualified health centers in the state, served more than 8,700 people in 2016.

McInnis said he stepped into a great situation with a district that has a good relationship with the communities it serves and operates out of a new facility. ECDHD moved into its 4321 41st Ave. location in 2015.

McInnis, a self-described sports fanatic, currently lives in Norfolk with his wife, Angela, and 9-year-old daughter, Karley. The family will be moving to Columbus.

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