Contributed by Bill Corr, September 2015
I am forever indebted to the Vanderbilt Student Health Coalition because my involvement put me on a career path that has enriched my life and given me the opportunity to serve our nation’s health care needs.
I was born in 1948 in Selma, Ala. and raised through high school (1966) in Birmingham. While in my second year at Vanderbilt Law School (1972), my classmate Irwin Venick introduced me to Bill Dow, Rick Davidson, and Pat Kalmans and the SHC’s work in selected communities in East Tennessee. At the time, I was working part time in the Tennessee Department of Public Health evaluating state public health laws to advise the Commissioner of Public Health as to which were outdated and needed revision. The SHC’s work in East Tennessee was extremely interesting to me as an unprecedented and very promising way to inform unelected community leaders of the health care problems in their communities and how they could attract and retain health care providers and resources to serve their communities.
When I graduated from law school in May 1973, I began a three month assignment with the SHC. Our project was to determine whether federal public health funding to Tennessee was actually getting to communities in East Tennessee in proportion to their needs. I worked out of LaFollette, Tenn. where I lived with John Williams, a Vanderbilt Law graduate who provided legal advice to the SHC and other community environmental protection organizations. While the project was not particularly enlightening because data and records were not readily available, the experience solidified my professional direction. Living in the communities where local organizing for health care services was occurring, and being among a group of local and outside people so dedicated to developing these services, shaped my future directly. In February 1974, six months later, I became the Executive Director of United Health Services of Tennessee and Kentucky, a coalition of four community built and operated non-profit primary care centers in four small Appalachian communities – three of which had been SHC summer communities in earlier years.
One of the greatest challenges our health centers faced was inadequate Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement. To bring attention to our problem, we succeeded in the summer of 1974 in getting the Chair and Ranking Member of the US House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee to visit our center in Clairfield, Tenn. to better understand the issues facing rural health clinics. That experience (plus others) informed my professional direction, and by May of 1977, I joined the staff of the US House of Representatives Subcommittee on Health as counsel. The first bill I was asked to work on was to change Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement for rural health clinics.
While I expected to stay in Washington for two years and return to community level work, my course remained in Washington where I am today 38 years later. I have served on the staff of committees in both the House of Representative and the Senate and of Senate leadership; held multiple positions in the US Department of Health and Human Services (most recently during the Obama Administration as Deputy Secretary), and been Executive Director of the private non-profit national advocacy organization, the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.
The SHC, the remarkable people leading and participating in it, and the extraordinary community leaders and residents I met in East Tennessee influenced my values, my aspirations, and my intentions for a career of public service.