When you ask Michael Curry, CEO of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers, why his network of clinics was able to respond so forcefully and effectively to the pandemic, you get a simple answer: “We were built for this moment.”
To say Curry has spent the past 19 months on the front lines is an understatement. His group — made up of 52 health care centers across the state — played a pivotal role in reaching communities that needed access to care. Thus far, those health centers have delivered 850,000 vaccinations.
But its impact goes well beyond raw numbers. Community health centers are primary health care providers for many of those otherwise lost in the shadows — especially poor people and people of color.
It’s a landscape Curry, 53, knows well. A past president of the Boston NAACP, he grew up in lower Roxbury. His family didn’t get their health care at Mass. General or Brigham and Women’s. He reels off the names of the cherished neighborhood institutions they relied upon instead.
“I’m a health center kid,” Curry says. “So it’s interesting to come full circle from that little kid who lived in Lenox Street housing project and got my care up the street at Whittier Street Health Center, and moved up to Quincy Street and Blue Hill Ave., where Boston Latin Academy is now.” In that neighborhood, he received care at Roxbury Comprehensive Community Health Care, known as RoxComp, now a charter school.
The pandemic arrived at a delicate time for health centers. Curry was preparing to take over the helm of the Mass League from Jim Hunt, a beloved figure in the state’s corriders of power since the early days of health centers; he had been at the league for 43 years when he retired. Besides Hunt, a generation of leaders at the centers themselves was heading for the exits, retiring after years of service to their communities.
But the pandemic also meant an opportunity for health centers to return to their activist roots. Drs. Count Gibson and H. Jack Geiger founded the nation’s first community health center in the Columbia Point housing development in 1965, one year after they had worked together in Mississippi providing health care during Freedom Summer. From the start, they intended to address the inequities they saw in health care, as well as the underlying conditions that left some communities so much less healthy than others.
In a sense, the pandemic presented a perfect storm of inquiry. Poor people and people of color were more likely to get exposed, less likely to be able to work from home, and more resistant, for many cultural reasons, to line up for newly invented vaccines. Along with a host of community groups and clergy, health centers went to work to get people in underserved communities tested and vaccinated. “Me being a civil rights person, I couldn’t have chosen a job that was more aligned with my personal ethic than this,” Curry says. “It’s civil rights.”
The health centers confronted many challenges right from the start of the pandemic, but the most daunting was simply financial: Overnight, as the world shut down along with some services because of the risk of exposure to COVID-19, many of the centers’ patients disappeared. So did the centers’ reimbursements for patient visits — which meant they lost 50 to 70 percent of their revenues, Curry says.
A state bailout that he was pivotal in negotiating helped keep the centers open, paving the way for the critical role the clinics have gone on to play in testing and vaccinations.
Curry insists that the spotlight the pandemic has placed on health care inequities cannot be wasted. For all its misery, it has provided a crucial lesson in the importance of access. “[US Representative] Ayanna Pressley says, ‘Those closest to the pain should be closest to the power,’” Curry says. “I adapted that. I said, ‘Those closest to the pain should be closest to the testing. Those closest to the pain should be closest to the vaccine.’”