It’s daunting to think about the number of good ideas that founder in the stranglehold of bureaucracies or red tape. Luckily, this didn’t happen in 1972, when a college dropout named Mark Masselli had the radical idea of bringing free health care to his New England hometown of Middletown, Conn. A new book, “Peace & Health: How a group of small-town activists and college students set out to change healthcare,” by Charles Barber, vibrantly describes how, without money or training, Masselli faced down opposition to start a health center. Community Health Center, Inc. may have had a humble start in a second-floor walk-up apartment, but today it is one of the largest health centers in the U.S.
In retrospect, Masselli could hardly have picked a worse place to start a clinic. Connecticut had abandoned a county government system and each town operated like a fiefdom, usually dominated by local and wealthy elites who frowned upon change:
“Then and now, Connecticut is famously called the ‘Land of Steady Habits.’ This widely used phrase to characterize the state’s essential staidness and complacency… perfectly captured something about the state’s now centuries-long resistance to change.”
Indeed, in many stories shared about the beginnings of a health center in underserved communities there emerges a common theme of local resistance to bold ideas about creating a space for accessible and affordable health care. Masselli, however, was persistent. Along the way, he found partners who shared his vision. They included a daughter of a sharecropper; the son of a Jewish émigré and pharmacist who breaks from his peers to support the cause; a musician who played in the big bands of the South in the 1930’s and lost his teeth and became determined to make sure others do not lose theirs due to lack of access; and a college student and future U.S. Senator John Hickenlooper, who helps buy the building so the clinic would not be shut down permanently.
It would be a mistake to say this narrative is about one health center and one man. It is a profoundly moving story that offers an incisive exploration of health care in America, from local politics to federal funding battles. The book also walks us through the labors of community organizing, with important takeaways for today’s health center advocates. Peace & Health illuminates what we might learn from an organization that has prioritized community involvement and innovation from its start and continues to lead the way for what health care can and should be in today’s turbulent and uncertain times.