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.
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.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.