Jenna & Barbara Bush doing good? Building better global health? Believe it

Saying good things about anyone named Bush has not been a priority of this space. But an article by Sarah Adler that appeared in today’s San Francisco Chronicle, and a quick visit to the Global Health Corps Web site, suggest that the former first twins have found a way to turn their considerable name recognition and fund raising skills into an innovative program at work to improve health access and care in the U.S. and across the globe.

When first daughter Jenna Bush attended a Bay Area AIDS summit hosted by Google.org two years ago, some skeptics doubted it would amount to more than a photo op.

But they were wrong. In a conversation with a Google staffer and a Stanford AIDS activist at one session, she helped come up with a big idea: A plan to improve health care access in the poorest parts of the United States and the world. What may have seemed like a pie-in-the-sky plan has morphed into a nongovernmental organization with an impressive roster of donors and more than $1 million in funding. Few may have heard of the Global Health Corps, but as its influence grows, that is likely to change.

“So many ideas come up in group conversations that never get realized,” said corps founding director Dave Ryan, who at the time was the executive director for Face AIDS, a nonprofit group that helps Rwandans living with HIV. “But when we all got together, we saw there was something special that could happen.”

Having watched friends transition from college into careers through organizations like Teach for America, they wondered whether they could create a similar organization dedicated to health care.

“We felt like there should be a similar program for public health,” said Charlie Hale, who works in Google’s direct ad sales division and is one of the group’s co-founders.

They enlisted an eager group of socially conscious friends and secured $250,000 in seed money from Google.org. Jenna’s sister, Barbara Bush, became the president of the organization, after spending time working in Africa with UNICEF and the U.N. World Food Program.

Rather than plunging into provision of health care or supplies, GHC finds people with skills in supply chain, design and technology often learned outside of the health care field, and partners with public health organizations to fill such needs within the field. These tend not to be old fogeys over 30, either; it is twenty-somethings like themselves that GHC seeks to attract. They have thus far sent 22 fellows to 12 countries in East Africa and the U.S., and plan to send 36 new fellows out this year.

The organization has also formed partnerships with the Clinton HIV/AIDS Initiative, which is part of former President Bill Clinton’s global nongovernmental foundation, and Partners in Health, which was co-founded by Dr. Paul Farmer and has a large presence in Haiti.

The Global Health Corps has four staff members in New York and three volunteers in San Francisco and relies on group calls, e-mail and video conferencing at cafes, such as the recent session at Philz Coffee where Barbara Bush, Hale and Chief Financial Officer Jenny Miller exchanged updates.

The group has raised more than $1 million, and Hale said that while he’s aware that the group has more advantages than others, it also has a greater obligation to prove itself.

“Our contacts got us in the room, but at the end of the day, no one is going to significantly fund you unless you show that your good idea can work,” he said.

The Global Health Corps is accepting applications for fellowships in Burundi, Malawi, Tanzania and Rwanda, where Barbara Bush recently traveled to meet with the group’s fellows.

Boomers and beyonders need not apply. This is a new-grads generation thing. Working backwards from the Greatest Generation through the Depression-scarred and the super-achievers and the me-firsters and the whateverers, it is encouraging to see a new generation of energy and optimism deciding to take on global issues of real significance and need. Even if the decider is named Bush.

Opportunity, optimism in Global Health Corps.

Health Policy: Is Altruism Dead?

Recently in this space the me-first word was brought up. (It does not abbreviate well.) Might as well say it out loud: health reform could surely be sunk by the Me-Firsters, those who would put personal desires above the greater good, whether those desires are for better pharmaceutical or insurance industry bottom lines or for some corner of personal coverage, senior or otherwise, that might be sacrificed in the future.

I am not above having those desires. My husband and I actually have a tiny bit of stock in a drug company thanks to some mergers and buyouts I do not pretend to understand (I also don’t mess with the family stock portfolio) and thus a decline could cost household income we can ill afford. Plus, I would hate having the excellent care I get from Kaiser (thank you, Medicare) curtailed and would be seriously bummed if suddenly stuck with paying 100% of my post-cancer meds. But if that, or something equally draconian, is what it will take to get health coverage for my currently-uninsured friends, I would like to go on record as supporting whatever we must do to get access for all. This is not noble, just minimally humane.

There are noble people out there, however. They sign up for Teach for America, they volunteer in nursing homes and day care centers and hospice programs, put in long hours at food banks or take to the streets in other, similarly un-chic endeavors.

Re the current health reform brouhaha, there are also noble people, or at the very least altruistic people, all over the country; you just don’t hear a lot about them. On August 19, for example, President Obama urged supporters of health reform to “speak facts and truth” in what he said was a “contest between hope and fear,” and tried once again to refute some of the misrepresentations still widely circulating. His comments were themselves fairly widely circulated. But unless you happened to run across them in this space you would not have known they were made to 140,000 members of faith communities and/or supporters of community-organizing nonprofits. The people of Sojourners, Faith in Action, PICO and other groups that put together the 40 Days for Health Reform conference call are not in it for personal gain; they happen to believe everyone in this country should have access to health care. The next day, Nancy Pelosi held a press conference reiterating her determination to keep a public option in the final health bill. But again, unless you happened to see it here you would not have known the event was sponsored by the San Francisco Interfaith Council with a lot of help from its friends in the San Francisco Organizing Project.

When the religious right goes on a tear against abortion or end-of-life choice (or for that matter, when the religious left goes head-to-head with its ideologically-opposed brothers and sisters) it makes news. When community organizers stage high-profile protests, the same thing happens. What does not make news is the enormous effort made by people of good will just to promote the common good — most recently, health reform.

Some opponents of Obama and his reform bills even have an altruistic bone or two. The reportedly calm, if badly misinformed, Bob Collier, featured in a front page New York Times article August 25, allowed that “we’ve got to do something about those people who can’t get insurance.” He qualified that later: “There has to be a safety net there. But I don’t want that safety net to catch too many people.” Somehow, Mr. Collier wants to separate out the “truly needy” from the “lazy and irresponsible people who play the system” and wouldn’t we all. The Times said that Mr. Collier gets his information from Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and Matt Drudge, none of whom I see as particularly altruistic. I would surely welcome him to True/Slant.

But the people cited above, people in faith communities (including many I disagree with and some I can’t pronounce), progressive nonprofits, community organizing groups and others just roaming the streets being kind, these people seek access to health care for everyone without worrying about who deserves it and who does not. A great many of them worked hard to put Obama in office, and are now working hard for health reform for no reason other than it is the right thing to do for someone else. Might be unrealistic but they keep at it.

My money is still on those people.