WASHINGTON (NNPA) – House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), the highest ranking Black member of Congress, has asked President Barack Obama to consider the public health-oriented president of a historically Black university for the post of secretary of Health and Human Services.
Clyburn is pushing New Orleans native Wayne J. Riley, a specialist in internal medicine, who has been president of Nashville's Meharry Medical College for two years. He says Riley would be ideal for the job, in part because of his consistent focus on the disparate rates of health care coverage, illness, and death in Black and other racial minority communities.
''There are currently over 47 million Americans who lack health care coverage, fifty-five percent of whom are minorities," Clyburn says in a statement to the NNPA News Service in response to a request for comment. "As CEO of Meharry Medical College, a Historically Black College in Nashville, Tenn., Dr. Wayne J. Riley is on the front line of the health care crisis in this country. His training, skills and experiences make him uniquely qualified to lead Health and Human Services at this critical time in our nation's history.''
Obama this week turned to health care and budgetary items after signing the $787 billion stimulus bill last week. Though rumor and speculation abounded, early this week Obama had not said who he would pick for the top health post. Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius is reportedly a leading candidate largely because of her attempts to broaden health care coverage. Initially, Obama had selected former South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle, but he withdrew himself from consideration after the discovery of tax problems.
The U. S. Health and Human Services secretary is the top cabinet post for the oversight of health policies. The successful candidate would be responsible for carrying the ball for Obama's promised new national health care plan. The department also oversees the U. S. surgeon general, often viewed as the chief health advocate.
Racial disparities in health care systems and statistics had become so deep that an Office of Minority Health was established in 1986 "to improve and protect the health of racial and ethnic minority populations through the development of health policies and programs that will eliminate health disparities," according to a description on the agency's website.
Yet, 23 years later, major disparities persist in virtually every health and disease category with African-Americans being the worst amidst Hispanics/Latinos; Pacific Islanders; Asians; American Indians; Alaska and Hawaii Natives.
Riley, Meharry's tenth president, previously served as vice-president and vice dean for health affairs and governmental relations at Baylor College of Medicine (BCM) in Houston. According to his official biography, he also has a broad range of patient care and administrative experience, including at Baylor's affiliate Ben Taub General Hospital, a 500-bed public hospital that serves the indigent and uninsured of Houston and Harris County, Texas. Riley was assistant chief of medicine at Ben Taub.
Riley supporters say he is uniquely equipped for the job as an African American physician with extensive experience and study in health policy for the underserved. Some also say Obama's top appointments have lacked geographic and educational diversity in that few if any have strong roots in the South or in historically Black colleges and universities.
"There is great talent and leadership in the South, which I think deserves consideration for leadership in the administration and all of the talent is not in the North East or the Mid West," says Dr. Louis Sullivan, who is also supporting Riley for the position. Sullivan served as secretary of Health and Human Services under President George H. W. Bush and founded the Morehouse School of Medicine.
A Republican, Sullivan's endorsement of Riley alongside Clyburn gives the bi-partisan support for which Obama has striven in the first month of his presidency. Riley also brings a balance of Ivey League and HBCU with a bachelor's in anthropology from Yale, a master's in public health from Tulane and a doctor of medicine from Morehouse.
Riley could not be reached for comment, but his presidential greeting on the Meharry website appears to reflect his vision:
"From the time in 1876 when the Methodist Church and Samuel Meharry combined their assets to establish a healing arts program to teach former slaves to care for neglected peers, Meharry Medical College has remained committed to the education, health and health care needs of underserved populations. We function as a private institution with a very public mission," he says. "Notwithstanding the fiscal challenges inherent in such a posture, we will always be the 'safety net' institution that cushions the fall of the medically underserved…We have been consistent in our efforts and will remain dedicated to our vision of eliminating healthcare disparities through education, research and patient care."