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Social Justice Roots of the CHC Movement

Sunday, June 22, 2014   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Joy Ingram
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by Seth Doyle, Community Health Improvement program manager and 2014 "Geiger Gibson Emerging Leader"

GWU Geiger Gibson Capstone Connects Participants to Social Justice Roots of the CHC Movement

Earlier this month I traveled to our nation’s capital to attend George Washington University’s Geiger Gibson Capstone Fellowship in Community Health Policy and Leadership.  It was an incredibly informative, energizing – and at times exhausting – jam-packed three days of nearly everything you could ever want to know about Community Health Centers.  Participants hailed from all corners of the U.S., representing 14 Health Centers, four Primary Care Associations, and one Community Health Foundation. 

Over the course of the three days, we attended meetings on Capitol Hill with staff members from the Senate and House of Representatives, traveled to the offices of NACHC and HRSA to hear perspectives on the current and future state of Health Centers from senior leaders, and learned about important new health policy research being led by faculty at George Washington University.

During our meetings on Capitol Hill we learned, without much surprise, that this is one of the most challenging political climates in the history of Health Centers.  While Health Centers have long benefited from bipartisan support, ongoing gridlock in Congress and continued fighting over the Affordable Care Act have made it especially difficult to find common ground on any spending related to health and health care.  As a result, Health Centers are facing a potentially devastating funding cut.  Despite these challenges, there remains reason for optimism.  Leaders from NACHC spoke about the strong national network of Health Center advocates and offered key strategies for engaging policymakers at all levels, while leaders from HRSA emphasized efforts to improve quality and performance measures and collect stronger data.  All of these efforts combined will be crucial for garnering the support that is needed to continue to grow the Health Center program.

For me, one of the most significant aspects of this program was the profound connection to the history and mission of Health Centers, which begins with the fact that it is named after the two physicians – Jack Geiger and Count Gibson – largely responsible for launching the Community Health Center Movement.  Throughout the three days nearly everyone we met with emphasized the importance of the Health Center mission and our collective dedication to it.

Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the Health Center Movement, and it is not coincidence that the earliest Health Centers were founded during a time of tremendous social change and political upheaval in U.S. history.  In fact, it was 50 years ago this month that Drs. Geiger and Gibson went to Mississippi, along with over 100 other physicians, nurses, social workers and other health care professionals, to provide free medical care to the civil rights activists organizing black voters during Freedom Summer.  That summer many of these same providers would officially establish the Medical Committee for Human Rights (MCHR), a group that had as its motto: “Health Care is a Human Right.”  Discussions held by MCHR activists would eventually lead to the Office of Economic Opportunity funding the first two comprehensive community health centers, one in Boston and the other in Mound Bayou, Mississippi.  Today the Health Center Movement has grown to 1,200 grantees serving over 20 million patients annually across 8,000 sites.  It is, as historian John Dittmer affirms, “the most significant and enduring achievement in the field of health care to come out of the civil rights years.” 

It is this enduring legacy that provides our movement with the strength and resilience needed to carry on during times of change and uncertainty.  In an interview from the 1960s, Dr. Geiger describes the Health Center mission in the following way: “our concept of health is to make social change, (and) to build the institutions that can make social change and keep it going.”  As we continue to usher in a new era of health care in this country we have an unprecedented opportunity – and obligation – to continue the legacy of the courageous and visionary leaders that launched a movement for health and human rights in the U.S.

For more information about the George Washington University Geiger Gibson program visit their website.  

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