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Barras: Sharon Baskerville: Health care visionary

When the history of the District's health care reform movement is written, Sharon Baskerville will be listed as a key leader. In the local prequel to Obamacare, her expansive vision and strong voice helped redirect the government's delivery system, emphasizing primary care in "medical homes" -- not hospital emergency rooms.

She steps down next week as executive director of the D.C. Primary Care Association. It's hard to imagine any health care conversation without her.

I visited Baskerville earlier this week. She already had packed her well-deserved awards and pictures capturing 30 years of service. We talked about her "bootstrap" story -- the stuff of books and movies.

Decades ago, when she walked into Community Medical Care in Shaw, she was on welfare with three children. She received the care she sought but also found her life's mission.

Baskerville began volunteering at the center and later became its receptionist -- hired part-time, but working full-time. "I was unstopping toilets; vacuuming carpets; setting up patient appointments; and listening to people tell me about situations in their lives that affected their health.

"I was just a jack of all trades," she continued. "I even starting writing grant [proposals]."

Baskerville lacked a college degree and never ran a company. Still, she was appointed the center's business manager. "I think they recognized I was a lot smarter than my life circumstances appeared."

District residents were beneficiaries of their wisdom.

Baskerville said she would have remained in that job, sitting "in a red leather chair" and "ruling the roost." But the director resigned. She assumed that job, catapulting her into a larger world permeated by politics.

"I remember standing for the first time and speaking in a public setting," she said. Back then, the District's health care system was anchored by D.C. General Hospital and poorly operated government clinics. After listening to officials present their plan for change, Baskerville took the microphone, arguing they had "left out the safety-net clinics," like Community Medical.

I saw her during some of those meetings. She was fearless and determined, taking on corporate executives and government managers clueless about residents' needs and demanding a focus on primary care.

Baskerville and several others began to organize, forming an association. Initially, she served on its board. Later, she became executive director.

In her battle to bring sanity to health care, Baskerville found allies -- Alice Rivlin, then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams, City Administrator Robert Bobb and At-large Councilman David Catania. The District ultimately established a managed-care system largely dominated by safety-net clinics.

Baskerville is credited with development of the Medical Homes Initiative; the push to get patients' records computerized; and creation of the DC Regional Health Information Organization, an exchange that would have allowed medical professionals to know at a glance patients' health care history.

DCRHIO is revolutionary. Unfortunately, the myopic District government has decided to shut it down.

"I have a lot of pride in what I've done," said Baskerville.

Her visionary leadership and transformational work on behalf of District residents deserve our praise.

Jonetta Rose Barras can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

Jonetta Rose Barras' column appears on Tuesday and Friday. She can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.