Mfume Brings Dose of Activism to Health Policy
Nearly 20 years after leaving Congress, Kweisi Mfume is focused on ensuring health policies work for minority communities.
“I once said that health was the real civil rights issue of this country,” the former NAACP president and CEO said, citing lower life expectancy rates and diseases that disproportionately affect minorities.
In his role as principal investigator at the Health Policy Research Consortium, Mfume works with a team that analyzes federal, state and local policies that address those health disparities.
“The problem is that [scientific] research does not always trickle down to policy,” he said. His team looks at whether health policies are achieving their goals, if the policies can be changed or if new policies are necessary.
Mfume also works with Research!America, an advocacy group, to encourage Congress to support research funding on behalf of the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
He first became involved in health policy as chairman of the health committee during his stint on the Baltimore City Council from 1979 to 1986.
Although he did not sit on a health committee during his five terms in Congress, he helped establish the Congressional Task Force on Sarcoidosis Disease Awareness, an inflammatory disease that disproportionately affects African-Americans.
Mfume said he has always been fascinated by medicine and said that if he hadn’t gone into politics, he probably would have gone to medical school.
However, he said he does not regret his time in politics and said working in Congress provided valuable lessons that have helped him succeed since he left the House.
The Maryland Democrat said working in the House taught him “how to work with people who are diametrically opposed to you.” He also said his time in Congress broadened his perspective and “made me realize this is a big and diverse country.”
Mfume left Congress in 1996 to lead the NAACP. He also served on the board of trustees at his alma maters, Johns Hopkins University and Morgan State University, and was recently appointed chairman of Morgan State’s board of regents.
Mfume stepped down from the NAACP in 2004 and made an unsuccessful run for the Senate in 2006, losing in the Democratic primary to Maryland’s current senator, Benjamin L. Cardin.
“It was an uphill battle, so to come within 3 percentage points of winning, for me at least, was significant,” Mfume said.
Following the race, Mfume spoke across the country on behalf of President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. In 2010, Mfume became executive director of the National Medical Association, which represents African-American physicians.
The next year, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius appointed Mfume to the National Advisory Council on Minority Health and Health Disparities at the NIH, which led him to the Health Policy Research Consortium.
Mfume said he plans to stay at the HPRC for a few years but would also consider another run for public office in the future.
“I’m somebody who never says never,” said Mfume.
However, Mfume also said that he would only run for public office “under the right circumstances,” including the potential for victory and whether his views would represent the majority of his constituency.
Although Mfume has not ruled out returning to politics, he is relishing having regained his perspective on government as a citizen.
“I don’t know if one becomes more adamant or closer to advocacy when you’re out of government,” he said, “but you look at things and immediately say to yourself, ‘Why is this happening?’ ”
Mfume is particularly frustrated with the gridlock in Congress. From the outside, he said it is clear that members of Congress today are unwilling to compromise in order to get things done.
“As a member of Congress, you are so much in the middle of that fight that you believe, rightly or wrongly, that you’re going to be victorious,” said Mfume. “And I think the smarter thing is to believe, rightly or wrongly, that you will reach a consensus.”
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