Rising to the Challenge: Wendy Armendariz gives neighborhoods access to health care

Rising to the Challenge: Wendy Armendariz gives neighborhoods access to health care

By Kathryn Reeve

Wendy Armendariz has been working toward better health equity and supporting the health and social needs of Arizonans for nearly 20 years. She has dedicated her career to public health, and her ability to transform organizations and meet needs continues to accelerate.

For nearly 10 years, Armendariz, chief executive officer of Neighborhood Outreach Access to Health (NOAH), has led her team from a small and determined group into the fourth-largest community health center in Maricopa County.

As health care challenges and opportunities present themselves, as they did in 2020, Armendariz and her team rise to the challenge, focused on the needs of the communities they serve.

NOAH is a nonprofit Federally Qualified Health Center with nine locations throughout Maricopa County. More than 350 passionate employees, from medical doctors and dentists to community resource and support staff, deliver on NOAH’s promise of high-quality, affordable health care for all. NOAH delivers on this promise for 40,000 patients because individuals and partners in the community believe in the mission and see the results.

NOAH’s model is comprehensive, whole-person care. Traditional medical practices offer one type of service. Because health and wellness are rarely isolated, NOAH doesn’t just treat one thing but is focused on addressing underlying issues to support proactive and preventative care. NOAH offers internal medicine, pediatrics, family medicine, prenatal care, nutrition services, psychiatry, counseling and behavioral health, dental and community resources.

“We don’t have small goals here at NOAH,” Armendariz says. “I am amazed every day at the work our NOAH team does for our patients, and to reach those who aren’t our patients yet but need our services. Every member of our growing team knows the job is important and that our patients deserve the best possible care, and they always find a way.”

In 2020 every business, organization and individual learned to adapt to the global pandemic. Under Armendariz’s leadership, NOAH responded by transitioning from 100% in-person medical visits to 100% telehealth medical visits in two weeks. In addition to medical visits, NOAH’s community resource and behavioral health teams also transitioned to virtual visits with people, many desperately in need of everything NOAH could offer.

“One of the things I love most about our team — and there is a lot — is that they are part of NOAH because they care about the community and serving the underserved population, often overlooked by services and accessibility in our increasingly tech-centered world,” Armendariz says.

“People needed basic needs met. They needed food. They needed to know where to turn to feel safe. They needed health insurance when their job disappeared. We didn’t want anyone to be left behind.”

Leading into 2020, Armendariz worked for more than a year to launch a new service for patients: psychiatry. From operational and workflow considerations to staffing and integration, she was committed to NOAH patients having access to full psychiatric services. The plan was for psychiatry to launch in early 2020, and despite juggling health care transitions, PPE shortages and staffing flexibility during that time, NOAH’s psychiatric services launched in May 2020.

Then came COVID-19 testing and vaccines, and the NOAH team did it all over again.

“Wendy hires talented people and lets them shine,” says Christopher Sweeney, director of clinical quality improvement at NOAH.

“She mentors employees on leadership skills and advancement, particularly young females, and advocates for equal representation from women leaders in the workplace. NOAH has been on a path of growth and community support long before the challenges of COVID, but that culture she created allowed NOAH to respond to the crisis and help our communities in a meaningful way.”

No stranger to rising to a challenge, Armendariz motivates her team and shows up right alongside it. When NOAH held its first COVID-19 vaccine drive-thru event in February 2020, Armendariz was there, working with staff, registering patients, and communicating to Spanish-speaking patients about the vaccine. Over the next few months, Armendariz and her executive leadership team attended almost all of the vaccine events, working long, rewarding hours with the NOAH team.

From February to August, NOAH gave more than 21,000 vaccines, many to underserved, low-income, uninsured, homeless or undocumented individuals.

Outside of the challenges and opportunities the pandemic presented, NOAH has made substantial investments in the health of the greater Phoenix community, including partnerships, financing and support to build a new state-of-the-art community health facility in the center of Sunnyslope, one of Phoenix’s most economically diverse communities. When completed in late 2021, the Desert Mission Health Center will expand services to more than 36,000 patients.

One thing Armendariz cares deeply about is the ability to make health care more equitable for all people by addressing some of the causes of health inequity. Known as Social Determinants of Health, she is committed to integrating the support, access and services to change their health and wellness in a lasting way.

Screening patients for food insecurity lets NOAH meet an immediate need — food — and relieve that stress so patients can focus on their health. Having specialists at NOAH who can help patients enroll in health care through the Healthcare Marketplace, Medicare or Arizona’s Medicaid program AHCCS means people can get ongoing, comprehensive care.

NOAH has big plans as the growing team led by Armendariz innovates in new ways to serve people exactly where they are. Later this year, NOAH will launch an RN triage line with extended hours, open a newly built health center and enhance direct community support.

Armendariz is on a mission to transform the health of the community through NOAH and its programs. More than access to high-quality affordable health care, she aims to change lives for individuals and families, and she has developed a passionate, empowered and committed team to do just that for neighbors, family and friends around the Valley. ν

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