As a newspaper reporter, John Vander Meer learned the impact of government policy on people’s lives.
“Whether writing about road improvements, law enforcement block grants or funding for frontline caregivers, a primary duty for any reporter is to translate the significance of policy into real human terms,” said Vander Meer (MPA ’06), who became executive director of the Wisconsin Health Care Association (WHCA) in January 2016.
That sparked his interest in how public policy was constructed and brought him back to his hometown and the La Follette School of Public Affairs, where his advisers helped him develop an interdisciplinary focus in political communications. Upon graduation, he worked on political campaigns and as a legislative staff member in the Wisconsin State Legislature before switching gears in 2011.
Several family members – including his father, a grandfather, an uncle, and brothers and several cousins – are physicians, so Vander Meer was drawn to health care. For almost five years, he served as communications director for WHCA/WiCAL, a trade association representing skilled nursing and assisted living facilities in Wisconsin.
Vander Meer’s extensive public policy, communications, and health care expertise made him the ideal candidate to succeed Tom Moore, who retired in January after more than 30 years as the organization’s executive director. “The complexity of the health care system, involving so many participants, so many issues, and so many challenges for making intelligent policy fascinates me,” Vander Meer said.
While he hasn’t conducted a regression analysis or graphed producer surplus in a few years, Vander Meer said the research methodology and critical-thinking skills that he honed through La Follette’s skills-based classes have been instrumental to his success.
“In my job, statistics help us demonstrate to Wisconsin legislators the fact that Wisconsin is experiencing a serious crisis in the availability of frontline caregivers in the Badger State’s skilled nursing and assisted living facilities,” he said. “Having taken classes like microeconomics, I have an enhanced ability to demonstrate the implications of the state’s long-term care providers having the second-worst Medicaid reimbursement system in the nation.”
Vander Meer added that La Follette’s classes in public management exposed him to useful case studies that have shaped his thinking about management and helped him understand how to use analytic tools. “Professor David Weimer’s Policy Analysis class brought all of these skills together,” he said.
Born and raised in Madison, Vander Meer received his bachelor’s degree in history and media studies from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., where his grandparents lived in a continuum-of-care community.
“It was there that I first saw how a continuum of care campus with independent living, assisted living and skilled nursing facilities is beneficial to not only residents but their families as well,” Vander Meer said. “I spent significant time at my grandparents’ apartment, where I helped teach my Grandfather – who delivered ice blocks by horse-drawn wagon as a child – how to use email.”
When Vander Meer decided to return to school for a master’s degree, he wanted to come back to his hometown. “The fact that UW-Madison and the La Follette School had strong reputations nationally and within state government played an important role in my decision for graduate school,” he said. “I also wanted to attend a school in a capital city so that I would have a front-row seat to the public policy-making process at work.”
Another advantage of the La Follette School, he said, was its small teacher-to-student ratio and the sense of community among students, faculty and staff. “La Follette students have earned a significant opportunity to study a fundamental aspect of how human behavior is incentivized and discouraged in society through the public-policy-making process,” he said.
Since graduation, Vander Meer has spoken several times to La Follette School students in the required Professional Development Workshop. “We are so thrilled to have alumni like John work with our current students,” said La Follette Associate Director Hilary Shager (MPA ’05, PhD ’12). “He shares engaging and informative anecdotes about working in the health policy field and delivers honest answers to student questions.”
Vander Meer, who lives on the near west side of Madison with his wife, Julia, also serves on the Boards of the National Alliance on Mental Illness – Dane County Chapter, Wisconsin Long-Term Care Workforce Alliance, and Department of Health Secretary Kitty Rhoades’ Wisconsin Long-Term Care Advisory Council.
“Ultimately, I believe our society will be judged by how we care for our most vulnerable members, including the frail elderly and disabled,” Vander Meer concluded. “Long-term care communities and the frontline caregivers who serve in those communities provide an essential service that I’m proud to represent.”