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Tribute to Louis Stokes

There are people who have the odds stacked against them in life and despite all the odds they soar to heights unimaginable and often with a humble graciousness that’s truly awe-inspiring. They help us realize that while our circumstances shape us, they do not diminish our dreams and goals and persistent drive to achieve them.

Louis Stokes and his brother Carl were awe-inspiring.

At their start in life, no one would have expected Louis or Carl Stokes—two men born into the Cleveland housing projects, raised by their mother who worked fulltime as a maid to support them—to eventually become the first black member of congress and the first elected black mayor of a major U.S. city, respectively. But they did that and more—becoming two of the most influential and effective men in shaping and defining an era for millions of Americans.

With the recent sad passing of former U.S. Rep. Louis Stokes, I wish to pay tribute to this man who inspired me and paved the way for my career more than he could ever have known.

The political journey of Louis Stokes included some of the most difficult assignments of our era requiring a man beyond ethical reproach of steadfast character with an unwavering moral compass. To the general public, he was patient and analytical, but in getting things done, he was tough, talented and principled.

There’s a quote I found that sums up sentiment about the congressman and nicely portrays how he approached everything he did.

As chairman of the House Ethics Committee, Stokes oversaw the committee's investigation of a corruption scandal known as ABSCAM in 1979-80, which eventually led to convictions of one senator and six House members. Recalling Stokes, U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach said: "We were in the midst of a huge...corruption scandal, and public service was taking a public beating. But Lou Stokes was there as a shining beacon of integrity, of excellence and most important of all for us, of justice." (excepted from Wikipedia)

Integrity, excellence and justice. Those of us leading today’s companies must always remember to hold ourselves to a standard that prizes these three values … values that are sorely needed among our leaders in our world today.

More than steadfast in his beliefs, Louis Stokes brought about national change as a servant leader who cared deeply about making a difference, without caring who received credit for it. Most effectively, he was one of the Cold War-era chairmen of the House Intelligence Committee, leader of the Congressional Black Caucus, the first black man on the House Appropriations Committee and more. While chairman of the House Appropriations Committee he did so much for Cleveland-- protecting major employers and directing federal dollars toward projects benefitting the city including health care facilities for veterans. Additionally, he had jurisdiction over all federal housing programs, NASA, and the Department of Veteran Affairs among other independent agencies.

As a man who has devoted his career to serving in the health care arena, for me, one of the most meaningful accomplishments of Louis Stokes was his tireless pursuit of eliminating health disparities. In this, he was THE champion for creating the federal infrastructure to support and maintain a systemic approach to the problem. He and Dr. Louis Sullivan, then Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, worked to shepherd H.R. 5702 (101st): The Disadvantaged Minority Health Improvement Act of 1990. This Act contained a number of critical provisions including amending the U.S. Public Health Services Act to establish and authorize the U.S. Department of HHS Office of Minority Health. President Bush signed H.R. 5702 on November 6, 1990.

Without these advances, we could not have arrived at the point in our history when President Barack Obama, our nation’s first black president, signed into effect the Affordable Care Act of 2010. While we are still navigating the many changes born out of this law, the ACA wrote indelibly into our fabric and national collective conscious that all Americans deserve access to equal, quality health care services regardless of their ability to pay.

On August 21, I had the opportunity to speak at the reception for The State of Disparities in the African American Community: 150 Years After Emancipation conference hosted by the Northeast Ohio Black Health Coalition in Mayfield Village. In this historic part of Ohio and with the passing of former U.S. Rep. Louis Stokes, I reflected on his life and impact arriving at the profound appreciation that I could not have stood before this group, representing the company I represent were it not for him.

Louis Stokes catapulted ideas onto the national agenda like access and health equity for all, working within the system to change it, and doing the right thing because it’s right.

I shared with those in the audience that day that I have gone from the cotton fields to the corner office because I’ve stood on the shoulders of the giants of the past. Former U.S. Rep. Louis Stokes was a giant among men. His brother, Carl Stokes, who served as a mayor of Cleveland, was a giant among men. They were genial noble warriors who championed the nation’s poor and focused federal attention—when there wasn’t any—on health disparities, especially those faced by minorities.

When I think of the lives he touched, Louis Stokes was a hero to countless generations of people he never had the opportunity to meet. Including me.

Today, as the CEO of InHealth Mutual, I believe we’ve taken the equitable health care stake in the ground first planted by former congressman Stokes and his cohorts and have charged forward with it to inject access, innovation and competition into the health care landscape. Through InHealth, we work daily to erase health disparities and develop innovations to make equitable health care for all a reality. Truly a man of the people, I’d like to believe the idea of a health insurer “of the people, for the people and by the people” would resonate with him. I’d like to think he’d crack a small smile at the thought of our hosting listening tours in the communities statewide to discover the real needs of the people so we can create products and services to respond accordingly. I’d hope he’d be proud to see us take on challenging issues impacting Ohioans like improving infant mortality and ensuring the level of attention given to mental health is equal to that given to physical. And, mostly, I’d want him to feel a tinge of personal satisfaction knowing he first sparked the national dialogue and inspired the ideals that led to our championing cultural competency. Because cultural competency is at the heart of all we do. And it is so vital to our cause that we train our staff members and board members on it and will be training our partners and providers.

In the wake of his passing, the New York Times recently ran a quote from an interview they did with former congressman Stokes. For me, it brings my tribute to him full circle.

“I’m going to keep on denouncing inequities in the system, but I’m going to work within it,” he once said. “To go outside the system would be to deny myself, to deny my own existence. I’ve beaten the system; I’ve proved it can be done. So have a lot of others.”

That’s exactly what we’re doing. Inspired by Louis Stokes, as CEO of InHealth Mutual, it is my sincere hope that we are changing healthcare from inside the system, not by tearing it apart but by improving it through including more people in it. Because in that way we, too, can be instrumental in changing the lives of countless generations we may never meet.


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