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40 years since Homer G. Phillips Hospital, loss is still felt

THE VILLE – This month marks the 40th anniversary of the closing of the venerable Homer G. Phillips Hospital. Built in The Ville in 1937 to serve black residents with quality health care, it became an institution known for treating gunshot victims and for training doctors and nurses from around the world. 

In 1979, then-Mayor Vincent Schoemehl closed the hospital after years of bouts with black groups. People in the area lost having a nearby hospital as well as access to adequate health care and facilities. 

A two-day observance of the 40th anniversary of the hospital’s closing was held last weekend, presented by the Campaign for Respect, Fairness and Human Dignity. The events were held at the Better Family Life Cultural, Educational and Business Center, 5415 Page Blvd.

On Friday evening, the organization presented a documentary, “The Color of Medicine: The Story of Homer G. Phillips Hospital,” that chronicles the rise and fall of the hospital. 

Saturday morning, a panel discussion ensued. It was moderated by retired nurse Zenobia Thompson, who trained at Homer G. Phillips. 

Like the documentary, the discussion reopened some wounds from the gradual political death of the fully black-operated, world-class hospital. Forty years after its demise, area leaders and residents championed the mission of the former hospital. 

They dissected, diagnosed and prescribed a health care chart forward for the area’s African-Americans from the current deficient “cure,” the Affordable Care Act.

Carl Green is a corporate trainer and director of marketing and communications for People’s Family of Corporations. The group includes Betty Jean Kerr People’s Health Center, the Amanda Luckett Murphy Hopewell Center and People’s Community Action Corp. 

 “It was a great thing, we were all excited about it, but there were holes in the Affordable Care Act,” Green said. “It didn’t help everybody; there were individuals who were in certain income brackets who we just couldn’t find a place for in the ACA.” 

Green said it was health care facilities such as People’s Health Center – founded in 1972 – that picked up some of the health care slack when Homer G. Phillips closed. 

The clinic, like the former St. Louis Comprehensive Neighborhood Center (now CareSTL Health)  provides care for underserved, impoverished and uninsured patients. Though hospitalization is not available, the clinic offers blacks the kind of dignity and care that Homer G. Phillips was built for.  

“If we went to some of the white hospitals, the beds were in the basement by the furnace,” said Dr. Oliver Page Jr., who was featured in the “Color of Medicine” documentary. He practiced medicine at the historic hospital, where he said blacks received first-rate treatment. 

“While there are clinics, there are many blacks now that don’t have access to that kind of hospitalization. The ACA left 50 million people uninsured,” panelist Dr. Will Ross pointed out. 

He is a professor of medicine in nephrology and director of Washington University’s School of Medicine Diversity. 

He also focuses on local, national and international policy. In addition, he is one of the founders of the St. Louis Regional Health Commission, a collaborative to improve health care access and outcomes in the city and county. 

Ross said that he was a firm believer in universal, affordable health care for all and that the ACA had holes in it that left too many people uninsured. 

In Missouri, programs such as the RHC and Gateway to Better Health filled some of the ACA’s gaps, but not enough, Ross and Green agreed. They said that the expansion of Medicaid in Missouri could have remedied the ACA and that Medicaid expansion was still critical for affordable, as well universal, health care.  

Panelist Catherine R. Jamerson also agreed.

“Not only is it important for our people that we care for, to move forward with Medicaid expansion, it is also important for creating jobs and maintaining the quality of the health care that we want to provide to our patients,” she said. Jamerson is a health policy leader for the Black Nurses Association of Greater St. Louis and a board member of the Missouri Organization of Nurse Leaders.

Panelist and social worker Ruth Ehresman, co-chair of the St. Louis Jobs with Justice Workers’ Rights Board, presented a ballot initiative petition to gather signatures for Medicaid expansion. It can be signed at

“We have to be pragmatic,” Ross warned, saying that the congressional numbers in state and national government, including the executive branches, had to favor Democrats to win Medicaid expansion and sustain the ACA. 

For panel observer Frank Chapman, the fight for health care has to be in the streets. 

“What we need is a mass movement of the people to bring about this change. Smart doctors, lawyers and politicians are not what’s needed for fundamental change,” he said.

Ross reiterated, “This is a high-stakes game. We’ve got to win this 2020 election.”

“We have to ask what is feasible. When President [Barack] Obama came in, he had numbers. He had the House and Senate. And did not have a single Republican support the Affordable Care Act, but it got through,” Ross said, pointing out that the 1965 Voting Rights Act was enacted because of a movement. 

“We need a movement of the people to put pressure on whoever is in office to give us what we ought to have … health care is a basic human right,” said Chapman, who was a co-chair of the ad hoc committee that waged a lengthy fight to save Homer G. Phillips Hospital. 

Bill Beene Bill Beene was born and raised in north St. Louis. He has been a journalist for 12 years. He enjoys cooking and roller skating. He lives in the historic Ville neighborhood.

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