How A Minneapolis Clinic Is Narrowing Racial Gaps In Health

Nina Robinson for NPR

NorthPoint Health & Wellness Center in north Minneapolis started as part of a 14-city pilot program funded by President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty. It's the only one of those health and social services clinics still in business.

North Minneapolis, one of the most racially diverse neighborhoods in Minnesota, was already dealing with high coronavirus infection and death rates when George Floyd was killed by police outside a corner store just 3 miles away.

His death on May 25 sparked deeper conversations all across the U.S. about the ways racial inequality plays out, including when it comes to health. Nationally, Black people are at least twice as likely to die from heart disease, from COVID-19 or in childbirth, compared with white people, and north Minneapolis mirrors those trends. Nearly two-thirds of Latinos in the area who get tested for the coronavirus test positive — that’s a rate nearly 10 times higher than the state’s rate overall.

“We were not surprised, because we serve a community that has health disparities,” says Stella Whitney-West, CEO of NorthPoint Health & Wellness Center, a community health and dental clinic and social services agency located in the heart of north Minneapolis.

But NorthPoint also has a five-decade history of addressing public health through the lens of race. It was founded with a mission to increase access to health care and social services in a community that today is 90% Black, Latino or Asian.

Central to its approach is tackling the social problems that contribute to illness — in order to better prevent and treat disease. Over the years, the center has made strides in public health: increasing the rates for child vaccinations and screenings for things like cancer, depression and dental care needs.

Of course the coronavirus pandemic has also added weight to many existing social burdens that contribute to poor health: loss of employment and insurance, poverty and food scarcity, stress and anxiety. Whitney-West says the racial strife layered on top of that also feels like a step backward.

“It’s been hard — not only for the community but patients, clients and our staff,” says Whitney-West. “Our staff is reflective of our community that we serve. Civil unrest — the riots in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death — brings us back to the history of how NorthPoint was started.”

The NorthPoint center began during a time eerily reminiscent of today.

NorthPoint is located at a corner of Plymouth Avenue that burned down during protests and rioting in 1967, when long-standing grievances in the Black community over lack of access to adequate housing, education and health care turned violent.

“I was 10 years old at the time, but it was very traumatizing to see all these Black people getting beat up by police and the fires right on our block,” says Gary Cunningham, who lived on Plymouth Avenue and watched it burn that night.

Inadequate access to medical care was a major issue that shaped life for Cunningham and his neighbors.

“There was an issue with ambulance service,” Cunningham says. “The ambulance wouldn’t serve the Black community there,” so he and his mother would take the bus across town when they needed care. “Most Blacks went to Dr. Brown — his office would be like 200 people in the waiting room because he was one of the few Black physicians.”

The federal government tried to increase access to health care for minorities. Among other efforts, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty established pilot programs in 14 cities to offer health and social services.

North Minneapolis got one of those programs. Months after the 1967 riots, Pilot City — which later became NorthPoint — opened in an old synagogue on Plymouth Avenue.

“I just remember it being a place where community gathered. The health center and social service center at that time were one place,” Cunningham recalls.

Nearly four decades later, Cunningham took over as the clinic’s CEO.

By then, Pilot City had fallen into disarray — its public image was that of an impoverished clinic of last resort. By 2002, when Cunningham took over, he says, it was running a $2 million annual deficit, and few patients were getting regular vaccinations or mammogram screenings.

So Cunningham refocused on Pilot City’s original mission: to increase access to health care by also identifying and enhancing social services to support that goal.

Cunningham’s team developed some innovative solutions to bring more patients in, including providing bus tokens to patients who couldn’t otherwise afford transportation. NorthPoint’s new approach reached a growing Somali and Hmong population in the area through hosting lunch events with religious leaders and featuring food from those communities. Over the last 15 years, vaccination and health screening rates more than doubled, to close to 80%.

That has meant more prevention of disease and lower costs for treatment and care.

Diabetes, lead poisoning and depression are also big problems in the community. So NorthPoint lobbied local agencies to get lead paint safely removed from homes. The center stocks a free-food shelf with healthy, culturally relevant food. All patients — regardless of what health problem they come in for — are now automatically screened for depression and dental care needs and are told to bring their family members in as well.

These measures have increased NorthPoint’s reach into a diverse community — something many other medical centers facing similar dynamics are struggling with today.

As a child, Rashida Jackson, 52, came to NorthPoint for health care, and now her mother, children and all her grandchildren see their doctors there.

Jackson is now on NorthPoint’s board of directors, which draws a majority of its seats from patients like her, who are members of the community.

“This is one of those powerful institutions that developed out of a lot of civil unrest and pain,” says Jackson, “and it’s a thing of pride to see this small community health clinic explode and grow. Whatever social service support you need, they have.”

That’s why the center is so beloved by the community, she says: “We own it, it’s family — it’s almost a living, walking, breathing thing.”

And today, NorthPoint is once again being held up as a model.

This past summer, in the wake of George Floyd’s death, Minneapolis and the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners declared racism a public health crisis.

Irene Fernando, one of the co-authors of the county’s declaration, says just as NorthPoint has done in the health realm, the county wants other government agencies to rethink policy — by looking at how race affects outcomes in education, employment and criminal justice.

“NorthPoint listens to the community,” says Fernando, who also serves on NorthPoint’s board. “Earlier than other entities, NorthPoint was reporting on race; earlier than other entities, NorthPoint was willing to do free testing for COVID.” So thinking about improving access to health care “is in how NorthPoint operates,” she says.

One reason its approach differs from those of other health centers is that it is a community health clinic, not a hospital, says Ed Ehlinger, former Minnesota health commissioner, who has written about racism in health.

That means, he says, its mandate is to improve public health in the community; it’s not under the same commercial pressures many private hospitals are up against.

Ehlinger compares NorthPoint to medical centers in countries that have universal public health care. “They focus on community-oriented primary care and have much better outcomes and lower health care costs,” he says. “So even though there aren’t as many of those neighborhood health centers left, I see them as the model that we should look to replicate, in moving forward.”

At a time when few patients trust their health care providers, NorthPoint has bucked that trend.

LaVonne Moore, a midwife and lactation consultant with the center, says that’s in part because NorthPoint recruits its leaders and doctors from the community it serves.

Moore, who lives nearby, says that interconnection between residents and staff fosters enduring, trusted relationships with patients and a level of care that is highly unusual today.

“I’m a provider,” she says. “I have dropped medicines for COVID-19 patients at their door: I just leave it at the door, go back in the car, make sure they know what’s out there, and they come to the door and pick it up.”

That trust is critical, especially given the gravity of problems that north Minneapolis faces these days: Nearly two-thirds of Latino patients who test for the coronavirus at NorthPoint are testing positive. While that’s an alarmingly high rate, CEO Whitney-West says it’s also a positive sign. A significant number of those patients are undocumented immigrants, she notes, and the findings suggest they trust NorthPoint enough to get tested at the center.

And from a public health standpoint, that’s a win, she says, because you need to know where the virus is in order to stop its spread.

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