Celebrating Martha Phillips’ Legacy of Excellence with the Georgia Dental Association
After 35 years of service to the Georgia Dental Association, Executive Director Martha Phillips retired from service on July 31. Under her leadership, the GDA experienced unprecedented membership growth, expanded its influence and respectability nationwide, purchased a 12,000 square foot Association headquarters building in Atlanta, and hired a talented staff that capably handles a growing number of member services.

“If the dentists who have served as the presidents of the Georgia Dental Association and the dozens of volunteer dentists who fill the myriad jobs required to run the GDA are the heart of the organization, then it must be said that Martha Phillips is the soul,” wrote late Past President Dr. Mike Rainwater in a biography of GDA leaders in 2002. “No GDA history would be complete without accounting for Martha’s role in the growth of, her vision for, and her love of the GDA.”

Beginnings of an Outstanding Career
Martha began her career with the GDA in 1977 as executive assistant to then-director Steve Janas. The Valdosta, Georgia, native obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree from Georgia State University, and worked in the real estate, insurance, and administrative fields before landing at the GDA. The GDA executive office had moved from Atlanta to Macon just two years’ prior in 1975, and occupied a handful of small rented rooms in an office building near Decatur. Martha quickly assumed multiple responsibilities in the three-person office, including meeting arrangements, legislative outreach, and financial and member services planning.

“As I came up through the chairs of the GDA, I had an opportunity to observe Martha as a staff member and see her superior work ethic,” said Past President Dr. Donald Johnson. “Within days of my installation as President in 1986, my plans for changes to the Association led to a door opening for Martha’s promotion. The Executive Committee (a forerunner to the Board of Trustees) endorsed her promotion to executive director and we have not looked back since.

“Martha was hired with the job description of ‘do whatever is necessary to get the job done,’” continued Dr. Johnson. “She has met that description 24/7 for the past 27 years. Martha has moved the GDA in a positive direction and our Association is recognized within the American Dental Association as one of the best run. Without reservation I will state that Martha is the cream of the crop, the crème de la crème. Thank you for a job well done.”

Legislative Accomplishments during Her Tenure
Martha stated in GDA Action shortly after taking the directorship that she would “pledge to always represent dentistry with integrity and professionalism and promise to give 110 percent of my time, energy, and enthusiasm in the performance of my job.” Among the positive changes in Association activities she instituted immediately upon assuming her directorship were expanding services to dental staff and conducting focus groups with past GDA leaders. Her abilities even then to sense the direction of dental trends was uncanny.

“The galaxy of changes and advancements Martha brought to the GDA outdistances, by far, the temporal impact in her years of service,” said Past President Dr. Richard Smith. “One example illustrates the awesome time warp we have crossed during Martha’s service. The winning candidate for ADA President the year Martha became director had as his single platform that we should mandate marking dentures with the names of the patients in nursing homes. Martha has navigated us through countless minefields as the complexity of dentistry’s issues had increased. She is always ready for prime time.”

Prominent among the new executive director’s responsibilities was service as the official lobbyist for the GDA under the Gold Dome, the State Capitol. The politically astute dental executive took to the business of protecting dentistry and dental patients with gusto through the years as issues such as auxiliary scope of practice expansion, the illegal practice of dentistry, dental licensure changes, access to care controversies, dental Medicaid and public health funding battles, PPO payment issues, continuing education, insurance reimbursement for dental procedures, and potentially punitive business regulatory and fee issues by the score rained down. Martha not only was ‘boots on the ground’ at the Capitol during each legislative session, but was instrumental in creating pathways for dentists to become advocates for their own profession. Her work with committed legislative dental leaders, including the GDA past presidents who have shared their thoughts for this article and “gone too soon” dental leaders such as Dr. Mike Rainwater, Dr. John Freihaut, Dr. Mark Ritz, and Dr. Robert Cash, led to the establishment of the Legislative AWareness (LAW) Day and Contact Dentist programs. The Georgia Dental Association Political Action Committee (GADPAC) has turned into an effective advocacy agency as well largely due to Martha’s influence. Certainly, establishing an incredibly successful association governmental affairs program stands as a shining part of Martha’s legacy.

“Martha has been family to the GDA and its members and has given more than we could have ever expected,” said State Representative and Past President Dr. Lee Hawkins. “She cares more about our profession and its future than many of those who have the degree. Martha has spent countless hours away from her family in tireless advocacy efforts for this profession and the patients we serve. I have never seen her withdraw from an issue that she felt to be a just cause.”

Martha has also served as a mentor and sounding board for numerous dentists with political aspirations, such as Dr. Hawkins. From long-time Congressmen Charlie Norwood and John Linder to state legislators such as Dr. John Savage, Dr. Lester Jackson, and Dr. Greg Goggans, Martha offered much-appreciated perspective and guidance behind the scenes. Congressman Norwood valued her input so much that he offered her a position with his staff in Washington, DC, upon his 1994 election, Martha, however, chose to stay in Georgia and serve dentistry. That single-minded dedication earned the respect of legions of legislators.

“At all legislative functions I attended, the first comment every legislator made was how much respect Martha had at the Capitol,” said Past President Dr. Jay Harrington. “In almost every year of her tenure the GDA passed a signature piece of legislation. Her political wisdom and insight has proved invaluable to our members as well as our patients. She has been dentistry’s consummate advocate for oral health. Thanks to Martha, we have a solid foundation for the GDA to continue building this great tradition.”

Past President Dr. David Allen echoes this ringing endorsement. “I have asked folks from former Speaker of the House Tom Murphy to Governor Nathan Deal, ‘What do you think of Martha Phillips?’ The universal answer was always, ‘Doc, there is not a finer or more trustworthy lady that walks the halls of this Capitol than Mrs. Phillips!’”

What shone through time and again at the Capitol was that the GDA, led by Martha’s keen legislative instincts, was known and respected for supporting common sense legislation that supported dentists as small business owners and health care professionals, and protected dental patients, especially vulnerable persons like low-income children and the elderly. Through Martha’s guidance, the GDA was perceived by legislators as fair and honest, and as an organization that wanted legislation that was just and balanced. Martha was able to position the GDA in this manner by a real love for the profession of dentistry and those who practiced that profession.

“We always hear how much legislators and our members care for and respect Martha, but many of you may not realize how much she cares about dentistry and how hard she takes the criticisms leveled at our profession,” said Past President Dr. Richard Weinman. “When someone attacks dentistry it’s like they are attacking Martha’s family.”

“In the state legislature she was a shining gem,” said Past President Dr. Mike Rogers. “Many times we heard legislators say, ‘We go to Martha for sound and honest advice on dental and health care issues.’ Some of our opponents were aggravated by her effectiveness—look at how masterfully she quarterbacked the creation of our independent State Board of Dentistry in 2013. She helped save and develop our issues many, many times.”

Expanding Member Services to Benefit Dentists
Apart from serving as the primary point person for the Association’s advocacy efforts, Martha oversaw the operations of the GDA executive office. She hired everyone currently at work as part of the GDA staff, including Interim Executive Director Nelda Greene (1992), Pam Yungk, Director of Finance and Membership (1993); Delaine Hall, Director of Publications (1995); Denis Mucha, Director of Insurance (2001); Courtney Layfield, Director of Member Services (2003); Phyllis Willich, Administrative Assistant, (2006); Victoria LeMaire, Medical Accounts Manager (2006); Skip Jones, GDIS Director of Sales and Marketing (2006); Melana McClatchey, General Counsel (2008); Margo Null, Property and Casualty Accounts Manager (2010); and Patrice Williams, Administrative Assistant (2010). She hired individuals who adhered to her work ethic of ‘do whatever is necessary to get the job done’ and instilled a love of dentistry within every employee.

Just as she saw early on the necessity of broadening the Association’s advocacy efforts to deal with a rapidly expanding set of challenges, she saw the need to expand the Association’s service offerings for GDA dentists. A crown jewel of her efforts in this arena was the decision by the GDA Executive Committee, which Martha encouraged and helped research, to purchase a headquarters building in Atlanta in 1998. The 12,000 square foot brick building was purchased and renovated, and opened to great fanfare with an open house for dentists in January 1999. This was the first time that the GDA office was wholly owned by the GDA. The building quickly became host to GDA board, committee, district and continuing education meetings, saving the Association money by moving the meetings from local hotel ballrooms.

Another GDA initiative Martha spearheaded was the creation of Georgia Dental Insurance Services (GDIS) in July 1997. The House of Delegates established the Georgia Dental Holding Company (GDHC) and the for-profit subsidiary GDIS to provide members with strong, stable insurance products, and to raise non-dues revenue. The drive to create an in-house agency came after a series of challenges involving endorsed member medical coverage.

“The GDA was extricating itself from a difficult situation in 1993 after endorsing a broker for the medical plan which was not properly serving our members,” Martha said. “The broker did not offer a true group plan, and we eventually discovered that 38% of every member’s premium dollar was going for overhead costs, not claims payments.”

The GDA moved members’ medical coverage to John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company in 1994. At the end of 1996, the GDA again faced a transition, as John Hancock notified the GDA the company would not renew members’ medical coverage. President Dr. Jim Hall and the Executive Committee began to lay plans to not only bring the medical plan administration in-house, but create a full service insurance agency that would offer other valuable products to members. The GDHC was established at the same time GDIS was established. The purpose of the holding company was to create an entity to own the GDA headquarters building that was purchased in 1998, as well as to oversee other for-profit subsidiaries.

GDIS partnered with Acordia / Anthem from January 1997 to 2000 to offer the GDA medical plan to members. In July 2000, GDIS partnered with BlueCross BlueShield of Georgia, and has been on an annual renewal basis with the company since that time.

“GDIS staff members Denis Mucha, Skip Jones, Margo Null, and Victoria LeMaire work for the dentists, their staffs, and their families, as well as students in the dental school in Augusta—not the insurance companies,” Martha said. “They are advocates for everyone interested in finding coverage appropriate to their life situations.”

“Martha helped organize and develop many of the GDIS insurance products,” said Dr. Rogers. “In addition, under her guidance the GDA initiated the endorsement of products such as our GDA VISA and MasterCard credit cards, CareCredit, Claim X, TransFirst, UBS, and others. Early in her career she realized that there were products and membership benefits that dentists needed to complement their success. She understood that for membership to have value, it needed to be more than just a membership card.”

Martha also had a hand in establishing numerous public relations initiatives in Georgia that enhanced the perception of dentists, setting up the Georgia Dental Association Foundation for Oral Health which oversees the Georgia Mission of Mercy program, transitioning the publication of GDA Action from black and white to full color, creating the GDA mascot “Gabby,” championing the creation of a GDA web site (the first one was launched in 1997), and supporting projects such as the GDA’s recent workforce census which give the Association ammunition to make progress in the increasingly rough-and-tumble world of professional advocacy.

National Prominence and Respectability
The Georgia Dental Association is known nationally for a number of reasons. GDA delegates have served as budget hawks at the ADA level, and Georgia dentists have taken the fight to several national organizations who proclaim that creating mid-level providers is the only solution to dental access issues. The GDA has time and again positioned itself as an organization that speaks for the sanctity of the doctor-patient relationship, the wise use of dentist’s dues dollars, fair and fiscally-sound approaches to dental care programs for the poor, and statistically-based approaches to dealing with dental access to care. Much of this national prominence can be laid at the feet of philosophies espoused by Martha Phillips and the Association officers with whom she has worked.

“I recall the early days when she was the GDA secretary and I was the vice chair of GADPAC,” said Past President Dr. Ivey. “That was at the beginning 35 years ago. In my opinion over this period of time there has been no equal to Martha in the ADA Executive Director Universe. She has been a pivotal person not only in Georgia, but in the Fifth Trustee District and in the ADA. She has been the council for presidents and executive directors at the state and national level. Every dentist in Georgia knows the tireless devotion to duty that Martha Phillips has provided for them and their dental association. Only a few fully understand that the impact that Georgia has had on the national level has been largely because of the support and insight that Martha has added. She has been a Superwoman for dentistry.”

Past President Mike Vernon also speaks of Martha’s national impact. “My fellow state President-Elects at a conference in Chicago knew of Martha and were envious of the GDA and our great fortune to have her as our Executive Director,” said Dr. Vernon. “She has allowed us access and audience with people that would not be possible without her groundwork. But she is not all business—an unforced tear from her at our first Georgia Mission of Mercy shows where her heart lies. The bar has been set for Association leadership and it is high.”

As much as Georgia dental leaders speak well of Martha, other states’ dentists and organizations have recognized her skills. She has received Honorary Fellowships with the American College of Dentists, the International College of Dentists, and the Pierre Fauchard Academy. She also received the Award of Merit from the American College of Dentists and a Presidential Commendation from the Georgia Dental Association, and holds Honorary Memberships in the American Dental Association, Georgia Dental Association, and Omicron Kappa Upsilon.

“In 2006 as Georgia Section Chair of the American College of Dentists, I nominated Martha to become an honorary member,” said Past President Dr. Kent Percy. “Martha became the first person in ACD history to become an honorary member after having been given two of the ACD’s most distinguished awards.”

Martha was honored by the Texas Dental Association in 2012 for her work with the Austin Group, a coalition of state dental associations committed to promoting a common-sense stance at the national on the creation of mid-level providers and advocating dentist-centered solutions to access to care issues. This group is widely credited with helping change the American Dental Association’s policy toward mid-level providers. She has also served on numerous ADA-level committees, including on the planning committee for the Association’s 150th anniversary celebrations in 2009.

Martha is a member and Past President of the American Society of Constituent Executive Directors. When word of Martha’s retirement reached her fellow executives, the superlatives rolled Martha’s way in waves. These are just some of the comments offered from around the United States:

Peter DuBois, California: “This is truly is the end of an era. No doubt you deserve the roses, the travel, and the leisure reading—but I and the tripartite will miss you terribly. You are one of the most astute and articulate colleagues I have known in dentistry.”  

Alec Parker, North Carolina: “Although I am sorry to hear that I won’t have you as my personal coach after July 31, I am very happy for you and Al. Your service to the GDA and the dental profession has been outstanding.”

Dr. Judith Shub, New York: “Few leave this field with the history of accomplishments and earned admiration and respect that you have deservedly garnered over the years. I wish you only happiness and good health as you venture into that unchartered world of leisure.”

Monte Thompson, Utah: “Congratulations Martha. You have been a jewel to work with and have continually made significant contributions to improve dental health care for everyone involved.”

Dr. Zack Studstill, Alabama: “I recall your support and advice for me as I served on the ADA Board of Trustees as someone whose judgment I could and did trust without exception. You are certainly the pattern I tried to follow when I became ED at Alabama.”

David Owsiany, Ohio: “Your work on behalf of the GDA and the entire profession of dentistry has been an inspiration. I have always been impressed with the GDA’s programs and your effectiveness. I respect no one in organized dentistry more than you.”

Billy Tarpley, Arkansas: “Thank you for your leadership through the years. Your vision and “get it done” attitude has been an inspiration to many, especially me.”

Connie Lane, Mississippi: “Although I do not consider Georgia small be any means, I have always been in awe of your proactive work and accomplishments that quite literally put the other ‘big guy’ states to shame. That was the result of one thing—your skill at management and your keen ability to team build to get the job done.”

State Prominence and Respectability
As Martha became known within the state for her staunch advocacy on behalf of dentists and dental patients, her knowledge about dentistry and her leadership skills were sought out by organizations other than the GDA. Martha served on the Board of Directors for the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and on the Chamber’s Governmental Affairs Committee. She was active on the Georgia Providers Council, a group of organizations including the Medical Association of Georgia, the Georgia Hospital Association, the Georgia Pharmacy Association, and groups representing nurses, nursing homes, and family physicians; the Georgia Access to Care Coalition; the Georgia Department of Insurance Advisory Council; and state’s Medicaid Design Task Force.

Certainly, Martha was well-known by the GDA leadership, and by state organizations and legislators with whom she had frequent contact. However Martha’s years of road trips to the GDA districts to speak at dozens and dozens of legislative receptions made her the face of the GDA for the majority of member dentists. Several GDA members offered warm comments when they heard of Martha’s retirement:

Dr. Billy Jamerson III, Savannah: “Martha has been an inspiration to so many across the Georgia dental community. She is perhaps the most respected public advocate in Georgia. Guided by common sense and hard work Martha has earned every accolade one can imagine. We have been most fortunate to have her leadership at the GDA. Martha I love you and wish you the very best to you and your family.”

Dr. Michael McCartney, Adel: “What a blessing Martha has been for and to us. Enjoy your retirement! You’ve earned it!”

Dr. Brian Hall, Athens: “Wow. I knew the day would have to come but I was hoping it would be much later. Martha is one of the best leaders I’ve ever been around. The GDA has prospered because of her leadership and will miss her greatly. Thank you Martha!”

Dr. Tom Godfrey, Atlanta: “Your service and reputation are known and appreciated by dentists throughout Georgia and our great nation. I’ll miss you as will the GDA membership, leadership, and staff, and the Georgia Board of Dentistry. Best wishes for your next journey.”

Dr. Silas McCaslin, Savannah: “I have so many fond memories of you particularly as Jay (Dr. Si’s brother) went through the chairs and served as president in 1983-84. To him you were a constant encouragement and valuable advisor. You have been an extraordinary asset to our dental profession. Your administrative, leadership, and role-modeling qualities will not easily be replaced.”

Dr. Derek Miles, Savannah: “I have been a GDA member for over 25 years and have had limited contact with you—my loss! I truly appreciate the awesome job that you have performed for us through the years. I have always been captivated by your knowledge and political understanding as it relates to dentistry and anything associated with how bills will or do affect us as dentists. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

Dr. Harris Siegel, Atlanta: “Upon hearing about your upcoming retirement, I was both thrilled and uneasy. My excitement is rooted in my sheer delight that you are setting sail on the next segment of your lifelong journey. My uneasiness is the normal reaction when having to replace a stalwart leader who has guided as needed, led when she must, followed when appropriate, and influenced an entire profession and its community with such passion, tenderness, and grace. The GDA and the entire State of Georgia are in a much better place than 35 years ago.  They have been most fortunate to have had you by their side.”

Dr. Larry Schmitz, Savannah: “I can think of no other individual in the state who has done more for organized dentistry during my 32-year career than you have. Your influence has been instrumental in protecting the integrity of the doctor-patient relationship in Georgia. I personally have had a much more rewarding career because of your efforts. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

Martha Phillips noted during her retirement festivities that any thoughts about her legacy were difficult to think about because ultimately others would decide that legacy. If the few comments that there have been room to print are any indication, her legacy includes not only concrete accomplishments such as the purchase of the GDA headquarters building and establishment of GDIS, but also accomplishments more philosophical in nature. Martha approached her job—her calling—with honesty and integrity in everything she did. She assembled an enthusiastic and talented staff that will continue GDA’s forward progression to bigger and better things. A supportive group of volunteer dental leaders found a willing partner in Martha and together they pursued a governing vision that led a relatively small state association to roar like a lion at nearly every level on behalf of dentists and the profession.

“I’ve established and verbalized to myself some creeds by which I have tried to manage my professional responsibilities and live my life,” Martha said as she approached her final day in office. “These include if you want to be a leader lead by example, and your responses to challenges should always be yes ‘if.’ This leads to brainstorming and growth. Answering no ‘because’ inhibits creativity and discourages growth.

She adds, “My strength comes from my faith in God and my joy comes from the talents and blessings God has given me. I have always believed that anything is possible and there is nothing I can’t do if I work hard enough. I continually tell myself this when I need motivation.” For 35 years, Martha has worked extremely hard for Georgia dentists and made this state a great place for dentists to thrive, a wonderful place for dentists to enjoy professional respect, and a terrific place for patients to obtain the dental care they want and need from the dentist of their choice. Thank you, Martha.