By Talib I. Karim, Esq.
Health & Law Reporter
This week’s Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Annual Legislative Conference or “CBCF ALC” will be the 20th that I’ve attended/observed, and the 41st ever, the first being held in 1970, just months after my arrival, on earth that is.
It’s no coincidence that nearly 40 years to the date after the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) itself was formed, one of its own members, Barack Obama, standing on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, would be sworn in to the nation’s highest public office.
It’s also no coincidence that two and a half years later, the ALC would focus on the center-piece of the Obama Administration’s legislative policy, health reform.
I recently discussed this year’s focus of health reform and jobs, with Dr. Marjorie Innocent, CBCF Director of Research and Programs. A proud crisp-dressing woman of Haitian decent, raised inQueens,NY, Dr. Innocent has a B.A. in Political Science and a Ph.D. in Health Policy and Management from Columbia University and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, respectively.
Here’s what Dr. Innocent had to say:
Talib: Dr. Innocent, first tell me, how did you get involved with championing health care issues for the CBCF?
Dr. Innocent: After finishing college, I noticed a connection between a person’s health and where they lived. This sparked my curiosity which was quenched at Johns Hopkins where I focused on this issue as well as the benefits of school based health centers. My work on these issues ultimately led me to the CBCF.
Talib: As people follow your lead and look to the health sector for employment opportunities, do you think it’s a good choice.
Dr. Innocent: I do. In fact, the truth is that the Affordable Care Act provides opportunities for good paying jobs, not just for traditional health sciences professionals like doctors and nurses, but also for educators, IT specialists, and others.
Talib: During my days as a Hill staffer helping to advance health reform, many in the CBC and Progressive Caucus argued that health care legislation was in fact a jobs bill. So your point proves that fact. Nonetheless, how are those seeking good paying health sector jobs helped by the President’s new $450 billion jobs stimulus package?
Dr. Innocent: While I’m still studying the President’s entire proposal, it’s clear that there are billions of dollars proposed for job training that can help the unemployed get the skills needed for them to reenter the workforce by landing the kind of good-paying jobs offered in the health sector.
Talib: With so many opportunities in the President’s health reform law, why is the public still confused?
Dr. Innocent: The CBCF is a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Yet, it appears that certain forces might prefer to keep the public misinformed. As a social policy think tank, it’s our role to give the public the truth, particularly the African American community. And that’s what we’ve done with the Affordable Care Act.
Namely, we’ve published a report, Understanding Health Reform: A Community Guide for African Americans, specifically written for African Americans but designed to help all Americans understand the benefits available to them under the health reform law, as well as the law’s potential for bringing about health equity across racial/ethnic, gender, economic and geographic lines.
Talib: What are examples of some myths that your Community Guide helps to dispel?
Dr. Innocent: First, we explain that the law does not mean that people will lose their health care or be forced to give up their family doctors, it does not impose limits on the services that people can receive, nor will it cause costs to sky rocket for businesses. In fact, we explain that health reform is designed to give people access to care by using the latest in preventative care. The law seeks to shift the nation’s focus from just treating people when they are sick to keeping people healthy, which will eliminate the gross burden on the nation’s limited resources.
Talib: Your Community Guide explains the many benefits of the Affordable Care Act in 50+ pages. For our readers, what would you say is the most important opportunity for those representing underserved communities like African Americans?
Dr. Innocent: There’s really too many to quickly single out the best opportunity. Yet, if I had to choose, I’d say the newly created National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities.
Talib: Right, the Institute was formerly aNationalCenter at the National Institutes of Health. But what does this elevation mean in practical terms?
Dr. Innocent: As a National Institute, it will have expanded research funding and will lead and evaluate NIH’s work on minority health and health disparities. On a practical level, we now have a national resource tasked with helping health providers and organizations who have established relationships within our community to get the funding they need to better serve our community. Some groups don’t get funding because they don’t know about the grants or cannot compete with larger applicants. The National Institute is there to level the playing field.
The Institute can also play a pivotal role in tracking the efforts of the entire federal public health system to assess whether their efforts are effectively impacting the African American community. If fully funded, and properly supported, over the next 15-20, we can see a dramatic change.
Talib: You’re talking about significant increases in mental and physical wellbeing, total health outcome improvements?
Dr. Innocent: Correct.
Talib: In closing, you all have several events planned next week specifically designed for those like our readers who are interested in advancing health outcomes on the local and national level. Can you highlight them?
Dr. Innocent: There are numerous events to attend. I would say check out the full list to see what works for schedule. For example, on Wednesday at 12:00, there is a Luncheon entitled “Healing Power:Community Health Centers, Prevention and Health Reform in Black Communities.” The next day there are several other Health and Wellness events including a forum hosted by Congressman Conyers discussing what’s needed to defend and build on Healthcare Reform. Friday also features health forums and braintrusts such as that organized by Congresswoman, Dr. Donna M. Christensen examining the Politics of Race & Health Equity.
Talib: And I’m sure we can also expect an earful on health reform from your keynote speaker for Saturday’s Phoenix Awards Dinner, President Obama. Clearly, with such probing and insightful content, the Washington Post, Huffington Post, and Wall Street Journal alike should have no problem finding hard news during the ALC to feature in the front pages of their publications.