Professor eager to lead Keith Center after construction

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

Peter Hammer has a lot of hope for the struggling city in which he works.

"The needs are incredible, but I'm always an optimist. I also think that out of crisis comes opportunity," said Hammer, who writes and teaches on health policy and development at Detroit's Wayne State University Law School. "The political environment in Detroit is such now that it's willing to make hard choices and take action. I don't think we could have said that 10 or 20 years ago."

These days, Hammer is contemplating community development more than ever. As director of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights now under construction at the law school, Hammer spends a good deal of time thinking about complicated urban issues and their social, economic and political components, while trying to figure out what policy directions from a civil rights perspective the region should head.

The problems in Detroit expand to all southeast Michigan, and segregated housing communities are at the core of our economic demise, Hammer said.

He thinks the Affordable Care Act signed into law last year doesn't adequately address the needs of the very poor, which includes more than just access to health care. Detroit, for instance, is an incredibly underserved area where hospitals and primary care physicians have left in droves.

While acknowledging there's no silver bullet, he'd like to see the gap filled by expanding roles for paraprofessionals. He also hopes the Vanguard Health Systems' investment in the Detroit Medical Center will enable the DMC to become a viable long-term health care provider.

With health care now approaching 20 percent of the economy, Wayne Law's health law curriculum and staff have expanded to reflect that growth.

"When you have a sector of the economy that's one of the few growth areas, there's a lot of money and a lot of jobs there," Hammer said. "I also tell students it's one of the most interesting sectors of the economy. It affects peoples' lives. It's intellectually interesting, legally complicated and sophisticated, and it makes a tremendous difference in the way people live."

He calls the Affordable Care Act a first step in the right direction. But he was frustrated to see how poorly politicians understand the health care industry.

One of the missed opportunities of health care reform was the chance to educate people about the issues, which includes the trade-offs the country must make.

That's a tough one because politicians don't like to admit there are hard choices to make, even though the public faces such choices every day.

Hammer also regrets that some labeled end-of-life issues "death panels."

"Medicalizing" end-of-life care does not make people's lives better, he said.

"It actually interferes with the kind of relationships you'd want to have by having doctors and nurses and tubes and machines being the mediating influence, as opposed to the family gathering around the bedside and quality time," he said. "And it's outrageously expensive, so you don't get anything healthy from it. And yet when we tried to introduce the notion of paying physicians and other health care providers to include that as part of the planning and the conversations, there was a crazy backlash."

Because Obama failed to talk about core values such as equality, access, and justice, he lost the rhetorical battle and the heart of why people deserve access to health care, he said.

Students have various opinions about health care, and lively debate is encouraged.

"What's important is that you raise their analytical abilities," said Hammer. "What I get the most pleasure from is that by the end of the class, you have an incredibly sophisticated policy discussion going on that didn't happen at the beginning. Whether they go out and advocate in favor of Republican choice-based alternatives or market-based alternatives, or whether they advocate in favor of greater government involvement, I don't care so much. What I care about is that they understand how the system works and that I've been able to help them get the skills to take a complicated problem and think about it in a sophisticated way."

Hammer said he's honored to serve as director of The Keith Center. When it opens in October, the 10,000-square-foot building will promote civil rights at a site that includes a lecture hall, clinic and meeting spaces, conference rooms, and an exhibit area.

"It's a wonderful opportunity to focus on Detroit and the state of Michigan, and to turn my energies to concerns that are closer to home," said Hammer, whose international work has focused on serving Cambodia's poor.

Speaking from his office in the Federal Building in downtown Detroit, Judge Keith said Hammer is doing a great job at the center.

"He's carrying on the mission of the center, which is equal justice for all," said Keith. "He knows our problems and wants the center to be in the forefront of protecting the rights of all Americans."

Published: Tue, May 17, 2011