In 1985, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) published its Report of the Secretary’s Task Force on Black and Minority Health, a landmark eight-volume report documenting the extent of health disparities affecting Americans of color and recommending action steps for the nation. To implement those recommendations, in 1986 HHS created the Office of Minority Health (OMH), the first federal agency dedicated exclusively to improving the health of all racial and ethnic minority populations through the development of policies and programs aimed at eliminating unequal health outcomes.

Flash forward to 2006: This year marks the Office of Minority Health’s 20th anniversary. To commemorate the occasion, in January OMH convened a National Leadership Summit on Eliminating Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health that drew an estimated 2,000 participants from across the nation. The three-day event, which featured some 350 speakers and a town hall meeting, was designed to celebrate 20 years of progress, challenges and future opportunities for closing the minority health disparities gap.

The celebration also included an awards ceremony where 13 individuals and organizations were honored for their outstanding accomplishments and pioneering leadership in the field of minority health over the past 20 years. The award recipients included African American mental health nursing trailblazer Mary Starke Harper, PhD, DSc, RN, FAAN, who was named the Secretary’s Award Honoree.

Dr. Harper, who is now semi-retired after a more than 60-year career with the federal government, served as an advisor on mental health issues to four U.S. Presidents, was director of nursing education at the Tuskegee VA Hospital in Alabama and taught at several universities. At the National Institute of Mental Health, she initiated the National Research and Development Mental Health Centers for minority populations and was also a major force in implementing the National Fellowship Program, which enabled more than 8,000 minority scholars to attain doctoral degrees in mental health fields.

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In addition to Dr. Harper, some of the other minority health leaders recognized with awards at the OMH 20th anniversary celebration were:

• Margaret M. Heckler, former HHS Secretary, who commissioned the 1985 minority health task force report

• Hon. Louis Stokes, JD, former Member of Congress

• Herbert W. Nickens, MD, former director of OMH (honored posthumously)

• Thomas A. LaVeist, PhD, professor, Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health

• Robert Samuels, founder, Florida Prostate Cancer Network

• Sherry Hirota, CEO, Asian Health Services

• Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola, MD, director, Center for Reducing Health Disparities, University of California, Davis, School of Medicine.


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