Health Care Coops Are Better For Black People

by on September 8th, 2009

For quite some time now President Obama and the Democrats have been touting a “public option” for health care. Meanwhile the Republicans have vehemently opposed such an option because they believe it will put America on a path to socialism. As an alternative, some in the Republican camp have proposed the creation and expansion of insurance cooperatives to aid in the reform of health care insurance.

Initially I agreed with the President and my fellow democrats. Now I don’t. My main concern is economic development and the revitalization of the black community, I don’t think the public option takes us any closer to that goal. Where black economic development is concerned I’ve read numerous articles by an economist named Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard. For over eight years Dr. Nembhard has been working on a theory of wealth creation in the black community.

In doing so she’s unearthed a wealth of history identifying and supporting the existence of black owned and operated cooperatives. Her research has identified cooperatives in the 1930’s and 40’s ranging from the Consumer’s Cooperative Trading Company in Gary, Indiana, which operated a branch store, a credit union, a gas station, as well as the largest black owned and operated grocery store in the country, to the Brick Rural Life School in North Carolina whose members formed a credit union and a health insurance program that covered up to $100 in hospitalization with a .25 cent co-pay(in 1930’s and 40’s dollars).

Rather than being knowledge for knowledge sake’s scholarship, Dr. Nembhard’s ongoing research is connecting the dots between past and present and if given the proper exposure could inject a significant black presence into the health care debate. Currently one of the cooperatives that she is studying is the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. Though the federation’s primary purpose is to help black farmers be more productive, it is also affiliated with a larger integrated cooperative called the Alliance For Employee Benefits Cooperatives(AEBC). The AEBC is one of the primary groups trying to offer the cooperative model as one that is viable for health insurance reform.

Dr. Nembhard’s work could also be applied to the Collective Banking Group–a collection of black church congregations that was initially formed to address issues of redlining in Prince George’s County. With a little grit and imagination the collective could address health insurance issues.

Granted, these are two very small examples and it will take a significant effort to get the numbers up to a scale where they make a dent in the cost and delivery of health insurance to the black community. However, where the public option is concerned, the majority of people won’t benefit from it until 2013 and after. That’s a long time. Given the existing research on coops I think they could scale before 2013. Meanwhile the ability to apply that research not just to health care and health insurance but to other aspects of black economic development leads me to the conclusion that in both the short term and the long, the cooperative approach to health insurance reform is the better approach for us.

Roland Laird