Saying goodbye to the godfather of the community health center movement

Daniel J. Driscoll | 9/9/2009, 6:25 a.m.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., waves as he returns to his Hyannis Port home on Monday, June 9,...
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., waves as he returns to his Hyannis Port home on Monday, June 9, 2008, one week after undergoing surgery to treat a cancerous brain tumor. Kennedy died just before midnight on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2009. AP /Joel Page

It was fitting, in the way that these things sometimes happen in life, that I was at the National Association of Community Health Centers annual meeting when Senator Kennedy died. Senator Kennedy adopted the community health center (CHC) program early in his career, seeing it as an essential part of the larger battle against poverty, discrimination and poor access to health care.

In our focus on the challenge of the day — whether it be a patient care issue, a funding shortfall, a staffing question or exasperation with technology — we can lose sight of our history. CHCs started as part of the larger “War on Poverty,” as well as the civil rights movement. They were not seen as simply a way to expand medical services, but as part of the broader and more difficult plan to bring people out of poverty by offering programs in early childhood education, job training, legal services, health care and community organizing.

Senator Kennedy always saw CHCs from that perspective. I have heard him speak countless times about the work that we do, and every time, he pushed his audience to see the connection between good health care and the more basic of human rights. We were never just another provider type to him, but rather an active force for equality and for the lessening of suffering for the disadvantaged among us.

We can be especially proud at Harbor Health Services Inc. because it was a visit to the Columbia Point Health Center (now Geiger Gibson Community Health Center) that introduced him to our work and set him on the path of what was to be a 47-year crusade to expand care to millions of Americans through the establishment of community health centers. We were proud to bring him back, this time to Neponset Health Center in the 1980s, to personally witness the good work we were doing in that part of the city.

Before Senator Kennedy adopted CHCs as one of his causes, we were a small pilot program, an experiment in a new way of delivering care and part of a larger panel of programs being evaluated for their ability to break into the cycle of poverty. After his visit to Columbia Point, Senator Kennedy introduced a change in federal law that established CHCs as a permanent ongoing provider, set in place with the same status as hospitals and other providers. It is impossible to overstate how critical that change in law was to the fact that there are now thousands of CHCs in the nation.

I have worked in this field for 33 years. During those years, I have lived through times of great turmoil and sharp disappointment in the decisions and priorities of our government. President Reagan de-funded about 25 percent of the nation’s CHCs; President Ford tried to fold us into a state-controlled block grant with other health programs. Other administrations curtailed funding or made other decisions that greatly complicated our work.

During all of those battles, the National Association of Community Health Centers, of which I am an active member as vice chair of the Legislative Committee, turned to Ted Kennedy to go into the back rooms of Congress and work out a solution to protect us. Not once did he let us down.