CK Insights

March 19, 2018

Women Who Inspire Us: Rebecca Onie, JD, Health Leads

Rachael Adler

A MacArthur “Genius” awardee, Rebecca Onie, JD is widely recognized for her leadership in addressing patients’ social needs – like heat, food and housing – as part of healthcare delivery. In 1996, as a college sophomore, she co-founded the social enterprise Health Leads to address the blind spot that, while 70% of patients’ health issues are tied to social and environmental factors, our health care system is not structured to address these issues. Prior to joining the Board of Directors, Onie served as CEO for 15 years between 1996 -2000 and 2006 -2017.


CooperKatz (CK): Where do you find your inspiration?


Rebecca Onie (RO): I find inspiration from people who work tirelessly — often without ego or fame — to address injustices in our society.

Here’s an example: In 1965, the nation’s first community health centers opened in a desperately poor area of the Mississippi Delta. A nun, Sister Mary Stella Simpson, was recruited to join the staff as a nurse-midwife.


Sister Simpson was appalled by the shocking absence of the most basic resources among the families she served. In one letter, she wrote about visiting an expectant mother with 12 children – all at home. “They live in three small rooms,” Sister Simpson wrote. “The house was cold. One gas heater in the middle of the room made very little heat. I was cold as I talked to the mother, and I had on boots and my all weather coat. The baby was whining, trying to cry. I picked her up and it was like holding a frozen fish. So I had to get something to keep her warm.


How can a country as rich as ours have so much poverty? I keep asking myself that question day after day. I could see daylight in places right through the roof and could see anything I chose through the holes in the walls.”


Now, more than fifty years later, I ask myself the very same questions Sister Simpson asked. Her work propels my own, because there remains so much more to do.


CooperKatz (CK): Do you have a compelling quote or piece of advice that keeps you motivated.


(RO): Eleanor Roosevelt said: “Do one thing every day that scares you.”


(CK): What is your favorite thing about the work you do?


(RO): Health care in this country is messy and complicated and full of inequity. But what I see every day is that when you get beyond politics and labels, people yearn for the same sort of things: health, dignity, and a sense of well-being for themselves and their families. Data from focus groups we recently ran in Charlotte, North Carolina makes this vivid.


Two groups, one comprised of African American Democrat women, and one of White Republican women, were asked, “If you had $100, how would you spend it to buy health in your community?”


You’d think that given the differences between these two groups, their answers would be vastly different too. But their allocations were nearly identical: both groups of women said they’d spend about 19% on affordable housing, 14% on healthy food, and 14% on affordable childcare.


We may be terribly fractured when it comes to the politics of health care in this country. But what if we are – or could be — unified on health?  I love my work because it’s all about locating this common ground — and using it as the foundation for a more just and rational health care system.


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