Profile —Architect of change: Mary Jane Koren, M.D., Vice President, The Commonwealth Fund
Mary Jane Koren has always taken pride in being creative. Inventiveness has driven everything she's done, who she's worked with and what causes she has advanced. But there is no question what her most interesting creation has been: herself.Teacher, professional French horn player, doctor, state regulator, grant writer – they're just a handful of the labels Koren has successfully worn in her 60 years.
Currently, as the Director of the Frail Elders program for the philanthropic Commonwealth Fund, she oversees long-term care programs and advises nationally on the pursuit of quality and resident-centered care.
An internist and geriatrician, she has experienced long-term care from perhaps every vantage point imaginable, except from a resident's bed.
"I'm a child of the '60s, always looking for a cause," she says from her East Side Manhattan office. "When I started asking people about geriatrics and aging, to me it was an epiphany."
A nod from Koren can mean all the difference in the world to a provider or researcher in need of grant money.
One of her most notable milestones was awarding Dr. William Thomas his first grant to pursue his "Eden Alternative" nursing home model when she was with the New York State Health Department. Later, as director of the Fan Fox and Leslie R. Samuels Foundation, she approved another to fund Thomas' Green House concept.
At first, it seemed the English major was destined to follow in the professional footsteps of her parents, a kindergarten teacher and a college education professor. Koren went as far as earning a master's degree in education before deciding to pursue a medical career instead.
(Also an accomplished French horn player, she played professionally to pay for medical school.)
During her first career in medicine – as an emergency room doctor in New York City – she decided she belonged in geriatrics.
"One night they brought in a man who had a stroke and was 78, about a year younger than my father, and everybody just wrote him off and said put him in the back room," she recalls. "It was a group facing tremendous inequities solely because they have lived a long time."
After jumping to elder care, she eventually grew restless and turned to the "other" side as a regulator. She directed long-term care services for the New York State Department of Health from 1987 to 1992, during which time she led implementation of the national nursing home reform law known as OBRA '87.
"A lot of people in New York still know me as the 'Wicked Witch of the West,' but that's OK," she says.
"I hated her at first," confirms Larry I. Slatky with a smile. Now the president of the board of the American College of Health Care Administrators, Slatky remembers needing approval from Koren to complete a nursing home he was building.
"Man, what she put us through. I had to redo plans 20 times before they met with her approval. She just had a mind that was so advanced as to what a long-term care facility should look like and what people living in facilities want for themselves. She would not compromise."
When not furthering the pursuit of resident-centered care, Koren is likely to be rearing and training her flat-coated retriever, Tommy. The puppy recently won its first show competition and also is training to be a search-and-rescue dog.
Her infatuation with Tommy may be a surprise to some friends, she says, but not to her significant other, retired bond trader Davis Palmer. Her former husband, Mo Katz, who was the COO and VP for planning at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, died about 10 years ago.
As for the future, Koren says she will continue to push for resident-centered care programs.
"In five years, we'll either see a transformed industry, or we won't see nursing homes," she says. "If people don't change, they will not be able to be in business."
Mary Jane Koren's Resume
1968 - Earns bachelor's degree in English from Montclair State College
1970 - Earns master's degree in teaching from Columbia University
1975 - Earns M.D. from Medical College of Georgia
1982-86 - Director of the nursing home program, at Montefiore Medical Center, Bronx, NY
1987-92 - Director of LTC Services, NY State Dept. of Health
1996 - Earns master's degree in public health from Columbia University
1997-2002 - VP and director of Fan Fox and Leslie R. Samuels Foundation
2002-present - Senior program officer and VP, The Commonwealth Fund