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After weeks in the media spotlight and under public scrutiny, the Illinois Primary Health Care Association (IPHCA) has finally named a new executive committee and denounced “inappropriate comments” made by its former CEO, Bruce Johnson.
This decision came after mounting pressure from Illinois lawmakers and Aunt Martha’s, a private, nonprofit medical agency and an IPHCA member.
The target of Johnson’s racist remarks was Aunt Martha’s CEO, Raul Garza, a 12-year veteran of the United States Air Force and U.S.-born citizen of Mexican descent. According to Garza and Aunt Martha’s lawyers in the course of a June 20 meeting, Johnson asked, “when I travel to Mexico, does Trump let me back in the country.”
The non-profit requested IPHCA’s Executive Committee to conduct an investigation. Allegedly, the committee remained silent to protect Johnson. In light of new incriminatory details, Johnson resigned along with the six members who comprised the executive committee.
For Aunt Martha’s, this outcome meant winning half of the battle. The agency had suspicions of “blatant racism that exists within the IPHCA’s leadership.” As a result, official complaints were filed with the state and federal agencies that oversaw the Illinois Primary Health Care Association. Illinois lawmakers also called for an investigation into IPHCA’s practices.
Sen. Martin Sandoval, D-Chicago, who co-chairs the Illinois Legislative Latino Caucus, called for hearings to “investigate the trail of racism” surrounding this incident.
On August 3rd, IPHCA elected of a new executive committee. In a note to members, the new group’s chairman, Dr. Lee Francis, CEO of Erie Family Health Centers in Chicago, explained that “we cannot move forward without denouncing the previous comments by our former CEO.”
The committee, Francis added, is “truly sorry for the inappropriate comments made to one of our members, Mr. Raul Garza.”
Francis made sure to address Aunt Martha’s demands for a more diverse leadership. A while ago, Garza pointed out that while more than one-third of the patients IPHCA members serve are Latino, no Latinos serve in a leadership capacity within the association.
That won’t change, Francis said, but only because “none of the eligible candidates were Latino.”
The new committee is fairly diverse, and now includes two women of color, Verneda Bachus and Veronica Clarke, leaders of two health clinics in medically underserved areas of Chicago.
Bachus, who was named Secretary, is also the CEO of Friend Family Health Center. Clarke, the new chair of the Legislation and Public Policy department, oversees TCA Health, which has a mobile van health clinic serving over 30 schools on the Southside of Chicago. The committee’s treasurer is Muhammad Paracha, executive director of Asian Human Services Family Health Center in Chicago.
As for Dr. Lee Francis, he is well-versed in leadership. Under his watch, the Erie Family Health Centers has undergone innovative transformations, such as electronic health record systems at all of Erie’s health centers. Francis also doubled Erie’s service capacity to over 72,000 patients and made sure the board reflected Erie’s patient population.
In a statement, Garza said he has a “great deal of respect” for each member of the new committee. “The changes made by the association to date are necessary first steps in the right direction,” he said. “I look forward to working with the new executive committee members to ensure meaningful and lasting reforms are implemented.”
Countless studies show that racial biases towards patients deteriorate the quality of care for minority patients, yet there is little research on how it affects these organizations’ internal structures.
The IPHCA-Aunt Martha’s dispute is proof that healthcare professionals are not shielded from racism. From doctors to CEOs, everyone can be the target of bias. They can however use their authority, visibility, and connections to denounce these incidents, which in turn, will have a positive ripple effect. In IPHCA’s case, 1.4 million patients and almost 50 medical health organizations – IPHCA’s members – will benefit from having ethnically diverse leaders, who spend their careers in the service of the ill, the poor, and the elderly.