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NIU historian curates traveling exhibition on health care reform

December 7, 2015

Hoffman-exhibitBeatrix Hoffman, an NIU history professor accustomed to presenting her research in articles, is now letting the pictures tell thousands of words for her.

Hoffman is curator of a traveling exhibition, “For All the People: A Century of Citizen Action in Health Care Reform,” which describes how citizen action has helped shape the American health care system over the past 100 years.

The six-panel exhibit is sponsored by the National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health.

“This was a first for me. I had never before thought of putting my research into a visual format like this,” Hoffman said. “The best part was being able to search for photographs and images that illustrate the history of people’s movements in health care reform. I was amazed at how many great images were available.”

Curating the exhibit had its challenges. Hoffman said the biggest challenge was telling the story visually. “Historians are used to writing lengthy text, but the exhibition format requires the fewest words possible,” she said.

Hoffman, whose expertise is 20th century American history, with a specialization in medicine and social movements, has been studying the impact of citizen action on health care reform for more than a decade.

An author of two books on the history of the U.S. health care system – “The Wages of Sickness: The Politics of Health Insurance in Progressive America” and “Health Care for Some: Rights and Rationing in the United States since 1930” – she has researched the role of social movements in pushing for health care reform. She co-edited the book “Patients as Policy Actors,” which analyzes many different ways that patients and health care consumers have influenced changes in the health system.

“The exhibit is definitely a continuation of my research, but it has also pushed me further in the direction of examining how movements for racial justice and health care justice have been connected,” Hoffman said. Her next research project will examine the history of immigrant rights to health care.

Among the citizens featured is Leonidas Berry, M.D., an African-American physician who was a leader in the medical civil rights movement from the 1950s through the ’70s. Berry not only led campaigns against hospital segregation and discrimination by the American Medical Association, but he also pioneered the concept of the remote area medical service. In the early 1970s, he organized a group of Chicago doctors and nurses who chartered an airplane and made regular flights to Cairo, in the very southernmost part of Illinois, to provide medical care to the impoverished community there.

Beatrix Hoffman

Beatrix Hoffman

The establishment of the Medicare program and the racial desegregation of health care institutions – both in the 1960s – were the two biggest victories that can be attributed to citizen action, Hoffman said.

“Senior citizens and civil rights activists have had a lasting impact on the health care system in these two ways,” she said.

Other reform campaigns have focused on the quality of care and how that is accessed and delivered.

“The consumer movement and the AIDS and breast cancer movements have also been successful in creating long-term change in the health system, making it more consumer-friendly and patient-centered.”

The health care reform battles are still being fought, Hoffman said.

Current campaigns are being conducted by conservative groups, who are strongly opposed to “Obamacare,” while many community activists are working to support the Affordable Care Act by getting as many of the uninsured to sign up as possible. Immigrant rights groups are organizing to obtain coverage for the undocumented, but so far have not been successful. And movement for single-payer health care is trying to get universal health coverage on a state-by-state basis.

“Right now their efforts are gaining momentum in Colorado, so that’s a state to watch,” Hoffman said.

While the Affordable Care Act and expansion of Medicaid in some states has significantly reduced the number of uninsured Americans, problems still exist: unequal access; high copayments and deductibles; significant flows of taxpayer money to private businesses; and, especially, a continuing lack of universal coverage.

“The U.S. is still far from achieving universal access to health care, and it is still very difficult to control costs,” she said.

Hoffman said she hopes that the traveling display will increase awareness of ordinary Americans’ contributions to health reform debates. “If we recognize that change can be created from the bottom up as well as the top down, maybe more people will get involved in creating a fairer and more just health care system.”

The exhibit will begin its nationwide tour in mid-December. It will make stops in Springfield and Orland Park in the fall of 2016. K-12 lesson plans and a higher education module are available online.

by Paula Meyer, NIU College of Liberal Arts and Sciences