Board Highlight: Kai Tao - Health & Medicine Policy Research Group

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Board Highlight: Kai Tao

March 3, 2022

A board member since 2015, Kai Tao, ND, MPH, CNM, has experience in health policy, programs, and clinical operations. Her experience spans a wide variety of reproductive advocacy and on the ground efforts, from opening a birth center in Phoenix to starting affordable vasectomy services for Illinoisans. Given Health & Medicine’s longstanding advocacy for freestanding birth centers and reproductive rights, Kai has been an invaluable member of the board. For the last 15 years, she has been midwifing with a federally qualified health center (FQHC) and doing births on the weekends at a large tertiary hospital. Her previous day jobs include overseeing ambulatory operations and serving as a Senior Policy Advisor for IL Medicaid. Prior to co-founding Illinois Contraceptive Access Now (ICAN!), Kai was the Chief Program Officer for the Chicago Department of Public Health.

Illinois has long been recognized as a leader in reproductive rights, yet people of color, young people, and people with few resources experience persistent barriers to high-quality contraceptive care resulting in reproductive and maternal health outcome disparities. ICAN! – whose mission is to democratize birth control access by improving the quality and coverage of birth control especially for those with fewer resources – is a multi-year (2021-2025) initiative to improve the quality and coverage of contraceptive care. As Illinois democratizes access to high-quality contraceptive care, ICAN! will serve as a replicable model for advancing reproductive health equity nationwide, paving the way for real and lasting culture change and new standards for reproductive health delivery in primary care. By training community health care providers to deliver patient-centered contraceptive care, empowering patients to seize their right to the highest quality care, and removing financial barriers through innovative policy reform, ICAN! seeks to create an Illinois where every person can decide if, when, and under what circumstances to become pregnant and parent.

Despite Health & Medicine’s significant victories and the many legislation wins in Illinois, we have a long way to go. As we see an increase in threats to reproductive freedom and a reduction in access to care in many parts of the state and the country as a whole, Kai expresses the need for policy with intentional implementation and quality assurance focused on equity and the experiences of those we want to serve. A policy without these is “just another policy that further divides the haves and have nots,” Kai says. “I am hopeful our state leadership will partner with content experts and reproductive health stakeholders to really improve our systems.” This year, the Department of Healthcare and Family Services (HFS) plans to roll out a new state plan amendment which will fully cover family planning and family planning-related services (e.g. cervical cancer screening  or STI screening/treatment) to thousands of more Illinoisans who otherwise cannot qualify for regular Medicaid. Additional new legislation granting pharmacists the ability to prescribe hormonal contraception could greatly increase access points for hundreds of thousands of people; however, Kai emphasizes that we must be sure contraceptive counseling is patient-centered, pharmacists can provide seamless referrals for in-person care, and trained pharmacists provide this service in rural and other hard to reach areas.

 “I enjoy hearing my colleagues fiercely debate and argue for social justice,” Kai reflects of the board. “It’s truly shocking how much brain power and intensity we have collectively. I’m just lucky to be learning from so many mentors and peers.”

Kai, who earned her Master of Science and Doctor of Nursing from the University of Colorado and her Master of Public Health from Harvard, spends her spare time doing inversions, trying new ethnic dives, drinking taro boba smoothies, and biking around the city. She and her husband enjoy rehabbing and creating zen spaces, respectively, and also dedicate much of their attention and resources to their special needs dog, Auggie.