Rodney Armstead, M.D., never met a challenge he didn't like.
When he was an intern at Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center in Phoenix, he was known for beating the director of cardiology training-Kenneth B. Dresser, M.D.-to the hospital and making rounds by 6 a.m.
"I was usually one of the first two or three people to get to the hospital, about four or five. That tells you something about him," Dresser said.
Armstead, now 40, went on to become intern of the year at Good Samaritan, then chief resident.
Armstead's current challenge is as executive vice president and chief health officer of the Inglewood, Calif.-based Watts Health Foundation and United Health Plan, its HMO. United serves more than 80,000 low-income enrollees in Southern California.
"I ended up coming to the Watts Health Foundation because of the type of community health enterprise that it's been, representing a rejuvenation after the Watts riots," said Armstead, who's been with the foundation since the summer of 1995.
In his positions, he champions the prevention and intervention abilities of managed care. Citing just one example, he said "the literature clearly shows" that by the time African-American patients with glaucoma see a doctor for the first time, complications have set in and the disease can't be controlled using one drug alone. That problem could be corrected through managed care, he said.
Armstead agrees his passion for accessible, quality healthcare was born while he was an internist caring for mostly low-income patients at Mountain Park Health Center in Phoenix. Armstead spent eight years at Mountain Park, and, under his direction as executive vice president for medical affairs, its medical staff grew from two to 25 providers. He found "the best talent that had that kind of commitment to join our group," he said.
But the experience "got kind of limited because I began getting interested in quality of care, particularly for vulnerable populations," he said. "As I got more involved in regional and national activities I began to feel fairly limited."
He resigned from the clinic, "not knowing what I was going to do," he said.
It turned out that keeping people in a vulnerable population healthy, treating them when they became ill and broadening their access to good doctors was excellent preparation for his next job.
Shortly after he resigned from the clinic, HCFA Administrator Bruce Vladeck asked Armstead to direct HCFA's Office of Managed Care. He took the post in May 1994 and held it until August 1995.
"You're talking about a meteoric rise, an incredible advancement by virtue of his attributes," Dresser said.
Armstead moved to HCFA from the "front lines," Dresser said. "Early on he demonstrated a commitment to the improvement of the healthcare system so that it could be accessible and affordable to all. He has made that his life's goal, and he has forsaken many great private-practice opportunities in order to achieve that goal."
While at HCFA Armstead was on the teaching faculty at Washington Hospital Center. "I thought that this clinical link was extremely important as you continued to have discussions about policy," he said. "That was a value I brought to Bruce Vladeck's team: I stayed active as a clinician."
Armstead said his main contribution while at OMC was "a commitment and passion for the whole issue of accountability." He believed, as a regulator, in dealing "with an open hand rather than a closed fist, but building in an element of accountability."
That is why he spearheaded HCFA's involvement in efforts to develop outcomes measures for health organizations. He worked with the Foundation for Accountability, an effort involving public and private purchasers and consumer groups, and also pushed for inclusion of Medicare measures in HEDIS 3.0, the National Committee for Quality Assurance's latest Health Plan Employer Data and Information Set.
"I didn't stay as long as I liked" at HCFA, he said, adding that personal reasons were behind his departure. However, he said the experience was "very rewarding."
Joining the Watts foundation brought Armstead back to the Los Angeles area where he was raised. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of California at Irvine in 1978.
Armstead lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Tana, and their 12-year-old daughter, Brynn. The family enjoys in-line skating along the beach, riding dirt bikes and snow skiing in winter.