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VIProfile: Steve Jenkins

By Gay Lyons

Steve Jenkins, CEO of the Choice Health Network, said his career path has been rewarding but not what he originally planned. The Knoxville native graduated from Farragut High School and earned a B.S. in psychology from the University of Tennessee. He planned to do graduate work in psychology, but a job as a case manager at Helen Ross McNabb Center led him to earn a masters in social work instead.

“I was introduced to the McNabb Model of Care and social work principles,” said Jenkins. “McNabb exposed me to communities of need, to homelessness, drug addiction and HIV. I saw the importance of creating access to care for those who have few options.”

Another factor influenced him. When he was six, his family lost his nine-year old brother, Tim, to leukemia. “My family struggled to pay for health care,” he remembered. “It taught me that health care should be accessible to all.”

This realization returned as he gravitated towards social work. “I saw the needs and understood that you could create solutions and options.”

At McNabb, Jenkins held a variety of positions ranging from case manager to vicepresident of development.

When he took the position of executive director at Positively Living in 2005, he became head of a small AIDS services organization with a handful of employees and a budget of $400,000. “We had a HUD grant for 28 permanent supportive housing units and a grant funding Housing Opportunities for People with AIDS (HOPWA),” Jenkins explained. “Later we added the Tennessee Ryan White Part B program, which provides primary medical care, essential support services, including case management and medications, and Project ACT, an HIV prevention program. We created a continuum of care from prevention to HIV treatment.”

When the opportunity arose to expand services and the service area, Jenkins and team embraced the challenge. “We believed we could build a unique health network. You accept the individual with all of their history. The majority live on the margins. They need access to transportation, food, housing and health care. All of these create health and wellness. You have to engage for life and ask, ‘how do we become a good life partner?’”

Positively Living grew to become the Choice Health Network. Jenkins, as CEO, now leads an organization with 45 employees across the state (Knoxville, Chattanooga, Cookeville and Memphis) and a $10 million budget.

“We get to serve a lot more people in a lot more areas,” said Jenkins. “We touch 5,000 people, and we provide HIV care to 700.”

The Choice Health Network does not operate supportive housing units, but case workers help clients secure housing. This is important because, according to Jenkins, “the number one predictor of an individual’s ability to stay on medication is housing status.”

People with HIV who take medication can reduce their viral load to almost zero; however, if medication is discontinued, the viral load increases and can progress to AIDS. The case management and client services provided by Choice Health Network are essential to keeping clients on the medications that will keep them well.

“HIV has historically had a disproportionate impact on gay men,” Jenkins explained. “Through the years, Positively Living has been closely aligned with the gay community, and we feel that it is a core part of our mission to advocate for, and on behalf of, the LGBTQ community at large. We are proud of this partnership and want to continue to be part of the conversation about gay rights, equality and equity. Over the past decade, there has been a shift in those contracting HIV. IV drug use has completely changed the landscape, and we have had to rethink many of our strategies to provide testing and rapidly link people to care. Among many of the people we serve, there is hesitancy and, in some cases, fear about engaging a medical provider. Ultimately, we want to be an agency that provides a safe space for everyone to get the care they need and deserve. We’ve created access to health care where there was none.”

Jenkins enjoys spending time with his sons, Jace, 20, and Seth, 19. “I am extremely proud of my kids. They are at the age where they are transitioning from teenagers to adults. Being part of their journey has been the highlight of my life. They played travel hockey, meaning we spent many hours in cars, hotel rooms and hockey rinks over the past 15 years. We made so many great memories. I’m looking forward to the next chapter and making many new ones.”

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