James W. Hunt Jr., a leader in the national movement to bring high-quality, low-cost health care to underserved neighborhoods, is retiring after 41 years as chief executive of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers.
Hunt, 71, who will step down in December, played a pivotal role in creating the network of 52 community health centers, with nearly 250 locations, that provide care to 1 million mostly low-income residents across the state. He was also instrumental in incorporating community providers into Massachusetts’s groundbreaking universal health care law, and establishing two organizations that help plan and finance capital projects for the centers.
“He made community health centers central to health care reform,” said Victoria Reggie Kennedy, who has known Hunt for 30 years and whose late husband, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, was an early supporter of using federal funding to expand medical care in low-income neighborhoods. “He sees the big picture. He seems to be ever-present. He always looks to future. And I honestly do not know anyone who doesn’t like Jim Hunt.”
Hunt will be succeeded by Michael Curry, 52, who joined the trade group in 2008 and is now deputy CEO and general counsel.
Community health centers emerged from the civil rights movement, with the first federally funded center opening in 1965 in Dorchester’s Columbia Point. It is now called the Geiger-Gibson Community Health Center, after founders Dr. Jack Geiger and Dr. Count Gibson. They saw their work as a social movement — and current leaders still do — because they considered access to health care a right worth fighting for.
Hunt was drawn into the movement in the mid-1970s after his wife, Jean Hunt, left her job as a nurse at Carney Hospital to help start the Neponset Health Center in their Dorchester neighborhood. Jim Hunt, then an assistant to Boston’s commissioner of public works, was recruited by the CEO of the Massachusetts League to be on the group’s state legislative committee. He went on to represent the league at the national level, and later became director of government and public affairs.
When Hunt became CEO in 1979, he did more than lobby state and federal lawmakers for money. He encouraged neighborhood health centers to work together for the greater good, pushed for expansion into areas that lacked medical services, and initiated a national model for recruiting physicians, nurse practitioners, and behavioral health professionals.
“Jim Hunt is the chief architect of some of the most important health policy, regulatory and funding initiatives impacting the Commonwealth’s most underserved and underresourced communities over the last five decades,” Elizabeth Browne, chair of the Massachusetts League’s board and CEO of Charles River Community Health in Brighton and Waltham, said in a statement.
Hunt said that while he is stepping down as CEO, he will continue to work for the cause of community health centers.
“I want to have some energy to do other things, to continue to the fight,” he said. He hopes to advise a new generation of community health leaders on expanding while maintaining their focus on diversity and inclusiveness.
“If I can help with that, I want to do that," he said.
Prior to the Massachusetts League, Curry worked for 16 years at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, where he gained operational experience across the organization before becoming a senior policy adviser for corporate affairs. While at the health insurer, he earned a law degree at New England School of Law (now New England Law Boston). He later served as president of the Boston NAACP and is a member of the national NAACP board.
“Michael is the perfect candidate to take over from Jim,” said Andrew Dreyfus, CEO of health insurer Blue Cross Blue Shield. “And this is the perfect moment for him,” as the coronavirus pandemic has starkly highlighted the health disparities that impact people of color, he said.
Curry, who was raised in the Lenox Street housing project in Roxbury, said his first priority is to help community health centers prepare for the distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine in neighborhoods where Black, Latinx, and Asian resident are often skeptical of the government’s commitment to their health.
“We are trusted with our communities. We need to start the preparation” for a safe, effective vaccine, he said.