Dr. Arethusa Kirk is the chief medical officer for UnitedHealthcare Community Plan of Maryland. She’s a graduate of George Washington University’s School of Medicine and Brown University, a pediatrician and a mother of two boys. Following her residency at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, she began practicing primary care pediatric medicine in Maryland.
By all measures, Arethusa is a successful individual and an accomplished leader who’s helping make the health system work better for tens of thousands of individuals across Maryland in her role with UnitedHealthcare.
But the road wasn’t always easy or certain and was paved with many obstacles along the way. She entered the foster care system at the age of 4. By the time she was 18 years old, she had been through 13 different foster homes — some for one day, some for as long as two years.
“Each time there was a change of school and a new home, it meant new rules and a new system to learn,” Arethusa said.
That experience shapes her approach to care as a physician in Baltimore and helps her see the world through the eyes of the children she treats as patients.
“As a pediatrician, I see that most kids are looking for stability, acceptance and love,” Arethusa said. “Through trauma, they can become closed. But children also have incredible strength and resilience. When given stability, they will often blossom and reach out, and that provides the opportunity to sow the seeds of true healing.”
Because of her background, Arethusa said she has a passion for helping empower those who feel like outsiders or who, like children in foster care, face complex challenges.
“Those challenges can touch every facet of a child’s health and well-being,” she said. “Only 31 percent of children who age-out of foster care graduate from high school and only 2 percent earn a college degree before age 25.”
UnitedHealthcare serves more than 65,000 foster care children in 13 states, including Maryland. This includes children who were adopted but still receive services from case managers, nurses and care coordinators until the age of 18. These teams serve and advocate for children with complex needs.
Serving those members means partnering with thousands of physicians in local communities and supporting a broad range of programs that help those with complex needs and chronic conditions get the care they need.
One such program is a free, mobile-friendly website from UnitedHealthcare called On My Way, available in 11 states, including Maryland. The site was originally developed for youth in foster care in the process of aging out of supportive care but is now available for all youth transitioning to adulthood, with the understanding that this process can be difficult for many.
Youth as young as 14 can start to use the site to plan for their future. The goal is to empower teens, provide meaningful tools and resources and to help them learn necessary skills, like how to build a resume, find an apartment and create a budget.
Arethusa knows first-hand how challenging that transition can be for many young adults. In her role with UnitedHealthcare, Arethusa is focused on working to help nearly 150,000 members live healthier lives in Maryland, including foster children.
“I am motivated every day to help make a positive difference for our members,” she said. “I went from foster child to physician. I’m living proof of how the right support and interventions — from teachers, physicians, social workers, counselors, foster parents and many others — can change lives for the better.”