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Reinvent the wheel no more: introducing SVP Knowledge Manager Sarabeth Zemel

Posted by Cecilia Garza

From the beginning, Sarabeth Zemel found a home in helping others help their communities. Her journey in health policy and the nonprofit sector began to take shape in the later half of her college career, after a brief but alarming brush with ill health.

She had just returned from Ireland where she studied archeology and assisted in a site dig that was disappointingly eclipsed by days on end of wet weather. The following term of school, while it became clear that archeology wasn’t for her, she recognized a deep interest in biocultural anthropology.

“I studied the societal, ecological and the socioeconomic reasons for someone’s health status,” Sarabeth explains.

For instance, her classes confronted issues like how the stress of a mother’s socioeconomic status or racial tensions could lead to low birthweight babies. But in a strangely timed chain of events, this newfound track led her to a course on the U.S. health care system around the same time she abruptly began experiencing racking headaches.

“I had something really rare called pseudotumor cerebri, and it’s a phantom brain tumor,” she says.

She had all the symptoms of a tumor: seeing double, migraines, light sensitivity and a lot of swelling in her brain. The doctors said that until she underwent several MRIs that could disprove a diagnosis, by all accounts she could have a tumor. Several thousands of dollars later, the tests revealed there was nothing. In fact, a simple $5 course of generic medicine was able to clear up the swelling and break the coinciding symptoms.

The combination of what she was experiencing and her studies made the magnitude of the equity gap in the U.S. tremendously apparent to her.

“I just racked up a whole lot of bills,” she explains. “Knowing that so many people have much more serious health problems than I do, don’t have insurance, but have to pay for health care in some way.”

If her family could barely manage the health care bills they were slammed with after her “phantom brain tumor” – which resulted in no health problems – what about those who did not have “phantom” illnesses but that were in actual critical condition with minimal-to-no health insurance? The thought of a fractured system and her own close call activated a passion for creating a way for all people to have access to the care they need.

It became a natural progression. Sarabeth graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in anthropology and a minor in public health, then went on to the Seattle University School of Law where she received a Juris Doctor with intentions of working on health policy. Almost immediately, she joined the nonprofit sector in advocating for more inclusive health care.

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Based out of Washington, D.C. for more than a decade, she worked across states with consumer advocates and state officials to build more robust Medicaid programs, writing and researching policy. And when the Affordable Care Act was passed, it began a whole new mill of work for her and her colleagues at the National Academy for State Health Policy (NASHP).

“We knew there was going to be a lot of crazy, frenetic work in the states to implement the law,” Sarabeth says.

To avoid recreating the wheel every time states went to implement a new regulation or write a request for proposals, NASHP created an online network for state health officials at Medicaid agencies, health insurance exchanges and public health departments.

“This online sharing tool would be a place where they could ask questions of each other, find out what they were working on, share resources and materials – basically steal from each other to make their lives easier,” Sarabeth says.

In other words, the work she did leading that project is not a far cry from what she will be doing as SVP’s knowledge manager and the newest addition to the Network Office.

“What I hope to do at SVP is connect people, to bring the knowledge all these SVPs have to light, and share with each other,” Sarabeth explains.

In her role, Sarabeth will act as a bridge between any given affiliate, the Network Office and the greater SVP network. She will curate and cultivate new materials for the SVP Resource Center. Over the coming months, she will work with affiliates to develop an online resource map for SVP affiliates around the world. The tool will help staff and Partners navigate the extensive and diverse portfolio of resources for building a strong organization and greater impact. She will also serve as support for affiliates who want to learn more about various tools, strategies or plans developed by other affiliates or the Network Office.

While right now much of her work is getting to know all the apparatuses that have been created to date, Sarabeth explains, what she’s really excited about doing is gathering information from SVPs themselves.

“I hope to talk to and hear from SVPs and their staff, what they need and want out of knowledge sharing,” Sarabeth says.

“I want to know how they use SVP Connect and if they use it. How frequently they use it in order to try to figure out what we can do to improve it.”

Learn more about Sarabeth (including such vital facts as her favorite sound and go-to comfort food) in her bio.