Remembering Congressman John Lewis

I will fight every day, hour, minute, and second with every breath and bone in my body to protect health care access


As Congressman John Lewis lies in state under the Capitol Rotunda we are reminded of his fierce bravery.  It would be easy to get lost in his accomplishments as a Civil Rights leader, the more than 40 times he was arrested during his non-violent fight for civil rights, and the necessary or “good trouble” he believed in, over 30 years as the US Representative for Georgia’s 5th Congressional District.  But I would also like to remind us of the ways that he supported the various aspects of what our organization does, the opportunities he created, the voice he gave to the disenfranchised, and the imprint of the same selflessness that led him to put his life on the line for civil rights upon his record of action as a legislator and his impact on so many aspects of what we do in our work.

As the Affordable Care Act (ACA) started to look like a reality, Congressman Lewis’ career-long fight for health care for low income and disenfranchised people began to appear to be coming to fruition.  Lewis saw the ACA as a defining moment in history, the defining moment where we would remember who fell on what side of the decision to live out the moral obligation to let health care be a right and not a privilege.  Here he is in 2009 making an impassioned case of this in Congress.  And once he had helped that precious jewel of affordable health care become a reality he was the lion on congress in its defense, as with this response to proposed legislature to roll back the ACA in 2017.   And his push to enhance the MediCare program was equally passionate, as evidenced by legislative action in October of last year.  It should not be a surprise that Congressman Lewis also championed the enhancement of black maternal health and, always practical, Lewis even sponsored legislation to expand the establishment of Medically Underserved Areas (MUAs). The presence of a MUA is the make-or-break criterion required to start a Federally Qualified Health Center…

On the substance use disorders front, Congressman Lewis advocated tirelessly for treatment, for alternatives to incarceration (to stop the hard-edged drug war that cut disproportionately through communities of colour), and led legislative efforts to apologize for and wind back the structural discrimination written into sentencing guidelines for drug-related offenses.  His later initiates focused upon the opioid epidemic, mental health services, and even the expansion of MediCaid to address addiction treatment,  Lewis was often heard saying that we need to “treat the whole person” when it came to addiction and substance use disorders and transferred this belief into his support for health conditions.  As the HIV/AIDS epidemic swept through the south, Lewis translated this belief into a decades-long focus on prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS, even introducing legislation earlier this year to help loan repayment for health care providers with an interest in serving persons with HIV/AIDS.

One of Congressman Lewis’ most enduring legacies will be his role in effectively triggering the modern suicide prevention movement with a House Resolution introduced by him in July 1997. Lewis was sensitized to suicide prevention by members in his district as well as his friendship with Senator Harry Reid of Nevada whose father had died by suicide and who, with Lewis, helped break through barriers of shame and stigma.  His House Resolution recognized suicide as a national problem and declared suicide prevention a national priority requiring culturally relevant prevention and intervention efforts and access to mental health care.  It spawned a National Suicide Prevention Conference, and from there a movement.  With his ability to see through the most complex socio-cultural entanglements, Lewis was able to simplify programmatic focus.  For example, his suicide prevention work led him into the area of gun control, both as a tool for suicide as well as a strategy for individual and mass violence.  And from there it was a ‘simple’ step to discover the connection with youth violence.

We have all benefitted from the work of Congressman John Lewis in some way, either personally and professionally or both.  We have all been touched by him.  He lies under a Rotunda that somehow feels too small.

Be well,

A. Jonathan Porteus, PhD

Chief Executive Officer

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