By Radhika Viswanathan
Published: March 16th, 2017
Take the B103 bus to Remsen Street in Canarsie and you’ll get off in a residential neighborhood. The houses are slightly dilapidated and cramped together, each with a patch of grass that only New Yorkers would consider a yard. It’s hard to miss the large green awning brightly emblazoned with the words “Coalition of Concerned Medical Professionals.”
Walk inside and you’ll likely be met with people browsing the coalition’s quarterly newsletter, the bold headlines containing phrases such as “Fight for Comprehensive Health Care” or “Government Shortfall in Public Health.” Perhaps you’ll see Dr. David Scott offering free consultations or hear advocates calling radiology offices for free x-rays.
“Our mission is to eradicate the obstacles between low-income workers and good health,” said Elisabeth Stevens, the board president of the Coalition of Concerned Medical Professionals. Stevens, who has been working at the coalition for the past 40 years, has short, spunky, blonde hair and a tendency to punctuate her sentences with a jab of her pointer when feeling particularly impassioned—a feeling that often arose as she described the organization’s efforts. “Before the term ‘disparities’ became trendy,” she said, “that’s the niche that CCMP filled.”
The coalition is a volunteer-run organization that fights to provide “benefit recipients”—the organization’s term for people seeking assistance—with free medical and dental care. When someone visits the office to make a benefit request, they are asked to provide information about what kind of care they are requesting. Importantly, they are not asked for their immigration status or level of financial need.
The benefit recipients are then paired with volunteer advocates. “The role of the advocate is to facilitate the treatment plan by working with the patient and physicians,” said administrative assistant Lynn Harter. “It’s the advocate’s job to call volunteer doctors and find treatment options.”
Kathryn Evans is a senior at Brooklyn College and a volunteer advocate at the coalition. “I’ve learned how to navigate different cultural or language or even age barriers, because the more barriers between a doctor and a patient, the less likely they are to follow the doctor’s order,” she said. “As an advocate, you understand where a patient is coming from and you’re making sure they get the same treatment from a doctor that anyone else would receive.”
The Canarsie office merely functions as a headquarters for the coalition. The actual health care takes place in the private practices or hospitals that agree to give free care for the benefit recipients. “We’re not a clinic, and we don’t set out to have a health facility,” said Stevens, “Our goal is to build an organization of people in the community who can gain strength by working together to challenge public policy.”
The group emerged in the 1970s in Suffolk County, working with migrant farmworkers who were paid 62 cents an hour and labored in unhealthy and dangerous conditions.
Edward R. Murrow’s 1960 documentary Harvest of Shame publicized the farmers’ plight; yet, according to Stevens, the farmers were never granted adequate health care by the migrant health board. Instead, they received help from students and physicians from the nearby hospitals, such as Stony Brook University School of Medicine and St. John’s College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, Roman Catholic nuns and members of the Black Panther Party. “This diverse group of people became the CCMP,” Stevens said. “We’re still a diverse group of people, maybe even more so today.”
From helping migrant farmers, the organization has expanded its efforts to bringing healthcare to members of workers’ organizations, members of low-income churches and other groups where people are uninsured or underinsured in the New York Metropolitan area. “We train people to be their own advocates. We train people to be a subject of their treatment rather than an object,” Stevens said. “We fight public policies that are annihilating low-income people.”
The coalition relies on donations of money, time, and resources. However, one of its core values is that it will not accept government funding, largely because the group often fights against government policies on behalf of those in need of health care. “For low income people, there is always some level of government that contributes to their condition,” Stevens said.
In addition, the coalition believes that government funding will come attached with too many strings and regulations. Giving an example of how using government funding could hinder the group’s efforts, Stevens described a program that gave New York City children free lunches during the summer. One of the organizers did not give a dehydrated homeless woman a juice box until Stevens intervened, she said, because the city grant was specifically created to fund lunch for children. “I told him, ‘This lady needs something to drink,’ ” gritting her teeth during her fiery retelling.
This passion is necessary for an organization that is constantly fighting more powerful societal structures. For example, in 2004 the coalition petitioned the New York State Assembly Committee on Health to oppose federal policies that reduced public healthcare funding.
The group also organizes events for individuals requesting to receive free-of-charge healthcare benefits. One of its upcoming events is a session where endodontists volunteer their time and equipment to give free root canals. And about once a month, Scott, who is also a member of the coalition’s board of directors, visits the group’s office to treat patients.
Scott runs his own practice and conducts research but said he feels most inspired when volunteering with the coalition. “In practice, there are demands on patients and physicians because of the realities of medicine. There are cost issues, insurance; sometimes there’s a barrier between you and the patient,” he said. “Here, all the administrative barriers are removed. It’s medicine as it should be. I can sit down and take my time while talking to the patient.”
However, Scott also acknowledges how difficult it is for every physician to volunteer time, given that most doctors are in debt, overworked and burnt out. But for those who can find the time, the coalition provides a venue that connects health care professionals who want to give back to those who need their help.
“The CCMP is an incredible organization,” said a woman who was waiting to meet with Scott. “I can attest to that,” chimed in another man sitting across from her. They were met with nods from everyone else in the room.