Hunt recounts Mass. origins of community health centers

Ted Kennedy followed the rule that all politics is local

JIM HUNT says community health centers got their start in Massachusetts because of the old axiom that all politics is local.

Hunt, the president and CEO of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers, said two Tufts University medical school physicians, Jack Geiger and Count Gibson Jr., had studied how South Africa launched community clinics and came to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in the early 1960s with the idea of replicating the concept here. At a time when Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty was taking shape, Geiger and Gibson believed that people without means deserved access to medical care if the cycle of poverty was ever going to be broken. Kennedy, according to Hunt, liked the idea and had a strategy for making it happen.

“Kennedy said that is fabulous as long as we do one in Speaker of the House John McCormack’s district at Columbia Point,” Hunt said on The Codcast with Health and Consequences hosts Paul Hattis, recently retired from Tufts University Medical School, and John McDonough of Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “So that’s really the essence of the start of the community health movement in Massachusetts.”

The concept quickly caught on, expanding from Dorchester to Mississippi and then on to Denver, Chicago, and New York. By 1971, according to the league’s website, there were 150 health centers across the country, 17 of them in Massachusetts. The Massachusetts League of Community Health Center officially was formed in 1972, when 24 health centers came together at a meeting at Northeastern University. 

Hunt joined the league full time in 1977 and moved into the top job in 1978. He is retiring at the end of this month and plans to stay on for six months to help with the transition to his successor, Michael Curry, the current chief operating officer and legal counsel.

A colorful story-teller, Hunt recounts the origins of community health centers, his success in getting a loan forgiven by telling the truth (that the original purpose of the loan was a bad idea), and the willingness of former Senate president William Bulger to essentially write a blank check to community health centers for a safety net program designed to treat people without health insurance.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Hunt said community health centers have a history of being fiercely independent and reflecting the communities in which they operate. But he said market forces have prompted a number of affiliations and outright mergers over the years, and the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers has stepped up to serve as a vehicle for industry-wide collaboration. The latest example is contact tracing, with the league signing a contract on behalf of the health centers with the nonprofit the state enlisted to carry out contact tracing, Partners in Health.

“Working together we’re stronger,” Hunt said.