I am sitting at a local coffee shop trying to keep the numbers straight. Sitting across from Joel Albers can be quite a whirlwind of dates and figures. Papers are clutched in his hands explaining all about why the Minnesota health care system is on the verge of a major crisis.
He’s running through the numbers, names and dates he knows by heart. 1937, the year the group health movement began. 600, the number of independent Minnesota pharmacies that have closed since 2000. Sept. 1st, the date of the Universal Healthcare Action Network Minnesota demonstration at the Republican National Convention. More than 500, that’s how many people are on Alber’s e-mail list. Almost every day, the pharmacist compiles a sort of “state of the union” about universal health care. All of that work pays off with only 20 or so people helping out. But that doesn’t deter Albers. “We’re small, but we’re scrappy” he says, without a single hint of irony.
Scrappy is an excellent word to describe the passionate founder of UHCAN-Minnesota, a grassroots organization advocating for universal health care in Minnesota. And Albers? Well, he’s just your neighborhood pharmacist. Your neighborhood pharmacist who is trying to make sure that everyone in Minnesota has coverage for prescription medication.
His passion and dedication to his cause has carried Joel Albers for the past several decades. It’s what brought him to Minnesota in the first place. While at school at the
University of Illinois studying pharmacy, a local health care advocate came to the school to talk about the latest shift in the health care system, privatizing hospitals. Something about that shift didn’t sit well with Joel, and so he formed a group on campus to protest the change.
“I have this picture of me holding a medical apartheid sign from one of the protests,” says Albers.
After receiving his PharmD, he came to the University of Minnesota to further his studies with the health economics program. The program confirmed what Joel had thought all along. Something was rotten in the health care system. His job at a local pharmacy was less and less about patient care, and more often about filing paperwork for insurance companies.
“Yeah, pharmacists are clinicians. We’re supposed to take care of people. But we end up working more with insurance companies and barely at all with people.”
Somewhere during those pivotal first few years in Minneapolis, Joel decided he was done dealing with insurance companies. He wanted them out of his pharmacy. Joel found that he wasn’t alone.
He discovered the group Physicians for a National Health Plan and started attending meetings. This was 1991. The group was (and is) working toward universal health care. Joel worked with them throughout several health care campaigns, but it wasn’t enough. So he branched out on his own and began UHCAN-MN.
Who can? UHCAN!
Joel founded Universal Health Care Action Network-Minnesota in 2003. Joel had been working with the Health Care Campaign for Minnesota, but felt he needed to do more. So he called the national UHCAN office, got permission to use the moniker, and started forming what he terms as an “affinity group” in Minneapolis.
Bringing his unique perspective to the table has been a blessing in disguise.
“Sometimes, people will listen just because I’m a pharmacist. It opens doors.” says Albers.
Between shifts at Schneider’s Drugs, a hotbed of political activity in its own right, Joel runs UHCAN-MN. It has no office, no official governing board. There’s not even a website that makes it look like an official organization. It’s just a couple pages and some video clips talking about UHCAN-MN. But what does shine through on those pages is the passion Joel Albers feels about his mission. He just wants to make sure that everyone who comes through his doors and needs medicine gets what they need. He wants to make sure that people don’t have to wait for an hour to pick up a prescription. He wants his friends and neighbors to be able to walk in and talk to their pharmacist in a way that hasn’t been seen in decades. Most of all, Joel wants people to receive the care they need.
All Minnesotans deserve the kind of care that Joel Albers’ customers receive. It’s up to state policymakers to cut health care costs and red tape to ensure quality, affordable access.