Congressman Elijah Cummings’ untimely departure from the community, state and national stage has left all those who knew him, or knew of him, with a profound sense of loss.
It has been striking that, with all of the words written about him, there has been little, if any, mention of his work on health care. For the Congressman, equitable access to health care was an essential social justice issue.
He worked to address the issue on multiple fronts. Following the tragic death of young Deamonte Driver in 2007, he led the effort to ensure that no other child would die from an untreated tooth infection. More recently he advanced legislation to: address the opioid epidemic; lower the cost of prescription drugs; reduce the causes and impacts of asthma and allergies; and eradicate the scourge of lead poisoning.
During Women’s History Month this year he introduced the Henrietta Lacks Enhancing Cancer Research Act, which served as a reminder of her impact on scientific research. This year, too, he was a founder of the Black Maternal Health Caucus to address the racial and ethnic discrepancies in maternal mortalities that plague Maryland and the nation.
It was the Affordable Care Act (ACA), however, that he called “the most important vote in my career.” Despite an illness, he was determined to be in his seat in the House of Representatives on March 21, 2010 to cast his vote for this landmark legislation. Just this year, he took to Twitter to write on the ACA’s anniversary that it enshrined “the promise that all Americans have the right to accessible & affordable health insurance coverage. I will continue to fight to ensure that everyone has access to the lifesaving healthcare they need.”
Congressman Cummings took every opportunity to promote the ACA and to ensure that everyone would benefit from its goal of universal coverage.
In September 2012, as Maryland was well into its work to implement the law, the congressman served as keynote speaker for the “Health Care. Women of Color Get It.” conference. This was sponsored by the Maryland Women’s Coalition for Health Care Reform (later Consumer Health First) and held at Morgan State University.
The purpose was to ensure that communities of color were aware of the law’s promise and the ways to leverage these to improve the lives of individuals and families. He spoke movingly of his own health challenges, including his efforts to lose weight and exercise more, and of the impact that the ACA would have on his neighbors, friends, constituents and people across the state.
Before the conference began, I shared with him a message I had received from a woman who wrote, “why is this for women of color? Aren’t white women important?” He was as stunned as I was, but shrugged his shoulders as if to say, “what’s new?” That attitude still lingers for some even as others work to undo the prospect of affordable health care for all.
Moving forward, Congressman Cummings’ moral leadership on this social justice issue should be a beacon of light to follow.
— LENI PRESTON
The writer is a consumer advocate and health policy expert and former chair of the Board of Directors of Consumer Health First.