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The Health of Nations 

One Spokane man is working to make us all healthy and cared for

click to enlarge YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak

When Ralph DeCristoforo was a graduate student at Washington State University, he wrote a report for a one-credit class. The report detailed the creation of a health care access project, a program to help the most vulnerable and uninsured get health care.

A dozen years later, with a master’s degree in Health Policy and Administration, DeCristoforo is still running that project, Health For All.

“The whole goal was to get out in the community and find people before they’re destitute or in need, before they’re almost bankrupt because of medical causes — I mean, 52 percent of our bankruptcies are because of a medical situation — and to help them out. We’re not part of the safety net. We stand in front of the safety net and try to bat people,” he starts swinging his arm as if he is playing badminton, “into programs before they have to free-fall into the tattered safety net.”

Health For All, which is coordinated by Community-Minded Enterprises, is mainly aimed at uninsured children and pregnant women, two groups that constitute more than 10,000 people in Eastern Washington. The project focuses on heavily populated Spokane County, where 4,000 uninsured children and pregnant women reside, but also serves the surrounding 10 counties.

The program, run out of the Saranac Building in downtown Spokane, doesn’t provide health care or insurance. Instead, it educates and connects citizens with programs best suited to their needs and eligibility. For instance, DeCristoforo will help people enroll in Washington’s Basic Health Plan or connect them with the Department of Social and Health Services. DeCristoforo even gives training sessions to small businesses if the owner can’t afford to provide insurance to his employees. Since 1998, DeCristoforo and his two full-time staff members have lifted 20,000 uninsured Eastern Washingtonians to the ranks of the insured.

“Health and wellness is a personal and a societal responsibility. It’s a partnership,” he says. “You have to go all the way back. Where did health care come from? Three cavemen could take down a wooly mammoth, and the whole cave ate. If Thor was sick, two cavemen couldn’t take down the mammoth and the cave starved. So what’d we do? We kept Thor healthy. What’d we establish? Ta-da! Health care.”

DeCristoforo, an excitable man with a graying beard, draws a thick line between health insurance and health care. “Insurance is what we use to finance health care,” he says. “Insurance is for anomalies. Health care is a standard.” He points to a broken system where insurance covers what happens after the heart attacks, but doesn’t help to prevent them.

In DeCristoforo’s perfect world, society is buttressed by early childhood learning, education and health care. He defines health care as the “appropriate care at the appropriate time in an affordable manner,” where people are taught health and wellness education throughout their lifetime. “The country has to decide what is health and wellness with the realization that health care is not a commodity,” he says. “You can’t pick your own health plan because you’re using a ouija board or you’re using a crystal ball to pick for the future. We have to establish some type of level of care for everyone.”

Two years ago, he went to the doctor after experiencing chest pain. The doctor found an aneurysm that the military, where DeCristoforo spent 23 years of his life, had overlooked. Now he’s watching his own health, too. “Nobody ever found that in the military, and I was doing some heavy work. I was a weight lifter. I was a distance runner, a bicyclist. So you just don’t know. How can you purchase something specific to what you don’t know is going to happen?”

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