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Donna Smith

Donna Smith, American SiCKO, is executive director of the Health Care for All Colorado Foundation

December 29th, 2010 10:03 PM

Let It Snow: We Need the Leadership

Whether it’s snow, wind or flood or acute injury or illness or sudden and unexpected loss of job, food, shelter or basic necessities of life, crisis happens in most lives and in most communities. We are human, and sometimes the forces of nature or man-made forces larger than our own take us down and take us out. In those moments, hours, days and months, we need crisis leaders more than cheerleaders or showmen.

So, why is it such a surprise every time nature rears its awesome power that we must marshal shared resources and pull together? This latest crisis – the blizzard in the Northeast – has created horrific conditions at the airports locally and a ripple effect throughout the air travel system as we’ve all seen and heard on national news programs.

We see the strained faces and fraying nerves, and we empathize.

I’ll lead us to the correlation between healthcare reform and snowstorm emergency management, but I first thought if we looked at the ways we react in a weather crisis and the ways we hold leaders to account, we might get a glimmer of insight about why we haven’t managed to significantly alter the healthcare crisis and how we might make more progress if we did.

We see planes that sat on the tarmacs for hours, and we wonder why someone – anyone – didn’t take charge and get those people off the planes, even if that meant holding them in a secure area of the airport terminals until Customs agents could check them through later on. Later we hear it is the airlines’ responsibility to make sure there is a gate waiting and passengers can safely deplane. The finger pointing never fills the leadership void. Someone, even someone very distant and higher level (maybe even someone from as far away as say, Hawaii), should have taken charge and facilitated whatever needed to happen to get the people off the planes.

I wondered about people caught in the airports who didn’t have a lot of ready access to cash. Not all travelers are wealthy. I worried not only about their access to food and water and medicines and sleep but also about missed work and angry bosses and all the on-going consequences of the weather conditions so obviously out of their control. Some folks have no way recoup the lost time and lost income. I also heard the airlines may lose $150 million due to this snow event. That’s an economic emergency too.

I heard today that as many as two million people were impacted by this air travel nightmare. Isn’t two million citizens ensconced in a weather emergency significant enough to warrant some high level intervention? Citizens of Brooklyn were angry that Manhattan seemed to get more attention more quickly from city snow removal efforts. Citizens of Brooklyn have every right to be angry and expect better. Haven’t we seen this sort of poor crisis management before in times of national emergency – weather or otherwise?

A snow emergency or hurricane or cancer or unemployment strand rich and poor alike, but the rich get annoyed, their schedules are disrupted and they may have to dip into cash and savings reserves while those with living paycheck-to-paycheck, prescription-to-prescription may quietly perish as cash and food, medicine and energy stores run out and no one comes to help.

New Jersey’s Governor Chris Christie stayed in Florida while citizens of his state dealt with the blizzard. He talked a good shtick about family values and the like, but when the going got really tough in New Jersey over Christmas weekend 2010, he stayed safe and warm and on vacation. He should take heat for that choice. Leadership during a crisis should involve, well, leading during the crisis. Poor choices like this should be remembered.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City looked mayoral and concerned, but he ought to have taken charge and told the people of Brooklyn they were right, Manhattan was cleared first, and that he would accept the resignations of all who made the decision to do that. If he directed that those best able to withstand the emergency be made safe before all others, he should have acknowledged himself a failed crisis leader and allow NYC to be led by someone who knows it snows in December, that NYC has major international airports, and that millions of working class New Yorkers will need assistance when bad storms strike.

In glowing and marvelous contrast, Newark Mayor Cory Booker got right in the middle of his city’s snow emergency and not only is leading the efforts but is personally helping as many people dig out as he can. He is shoveling snow. He is pushing cars. He is directing emergency response. He is Tweeting when it is useful and when it is uplifting. Cory Booker is leading. He could be sitting at home or in his office or even from Cinderella’s castle, but he made a different choice.

I am not foolish or naive. Not every leader can push cars or shovel heavy snow. That isn’t the point. The point is that real crisis leadership means knowing, feeling, embracing the crisis that your fellow citizens know and feel and embrace and then making personal choices to do all that is within your power as a leader to mitigate the suffering and restore normalcy. Time and time again, what people get angry about is not the crisis itself but a lack of fairness in leadership response to that crisis.

The snow provides us a chance to see once again how equal we really are in the grander scheme of things. We are the forces that make the suffering unequal.

When I equate this to the healthcare crisis, I feel like I’ve trapped on the tarmac for years on end. Every single day in America, 123 people die preventable deaths without access to care simply because they didn’t have the money to buy that care. Where is their crisis leader? Add to that horrific crisis of the 2,100 Americans every single day who declare personal bankruptcy (of the estimated 3,800 daily) who went broke because of medical crisis. That’s at least 80-90 people every day if the bankruptcy courts stayed open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. That’s a lot of broke people and sick people and dead people.

Out here on the healthcare tarmac in America, all I ever really wanted was for a crisis leader to step up and acknowledge the death and destruction and to do whatever was in his or her power to do to stop it. Today. Get us all off the tarmac. It is not impossible.

I suspect if Cory Booker or someone like him were put in charge of an emergency in which 123 people in his community were poised to die when help was available and when 2,100 in Newark were set to lose their financial security, that sort of crisis leader would get the care first that was needed to save the lives and interrupt the impending financial collapse. Then that crisis leader would step up and call on those conference-table experts to make the longer term changes that would mitigate future death and destruction. That’s crisis leadership.

We need more and more crisis leaders in America. We get to see them from time to time and see their skills or lack thereof in these natural and unnatural events like snowstorms, hurricanes, deep recessions and the like. These are the tests by which we should measure future leaders. Get us off the planes and off the tarmac. Plow the streets as soon as you can. Tell us the truth about the crisis and about steps to resolve it from the appropriate vantage point. We’ll see who leads and who doesn’t. We don’t expect not to face any storms, but we do expect the best fair chance to weather them.

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