On his first day at Hennepin Healthcare, Phillip Brooks, vice president of revenue management, walked out of a staff lounge after buying his lunch. A hospital patient came up to him and said, “Oh, you got that for me?”
Believing the man was joking, Brooks responded, “No, that’s my lunch. Go get your own.” To Brooks’s surprise, the patient explained that he didn’t have any money and hadn’t eaten in two days. Brooks gave the patient his lunch, and ever since, he’s made it his mission to ease the financial burden of patients like that one.
An African American who grew up in a family that struggled to make ends meet, Brooks knows how difficult it is for poor people and minorities to access healthcare and pay for services. At Hennepin, he’s an advocate for patients who can’t pay their bills and for those who refuse to seek healthcare services because they cannot pay. Brooks has also helped the Minneapolis healthcare system—an essential hospital, where a large percentage of the patients are minorities, immigrants, and people who are homeless—make strides in diversifying its vendors and addressing systemic racism within hospital walls.
Brooks remembers that when he was a child, seeking medical treatment was an intimidating experience for him and his parents. Lacking the financial means to engage with the healthcare system, his family was reluctant to seek care until it was absolutely necessary, which meant seeking treatment was emergent and therefore more costly. Those memories now spur him to treat patients in similar circumstances with compassion and empathy.
Hennepin largely serves a vulnerable population, with many patients who are not native English speakers. The hospital helps them access local, state, and federal programs offering financial assistance for healthcare. Brooks remembers how difficult it was for his family to navigate the bureaucracy of financial assistance, and notes that the difficulty is compounded for people who don’t speak English.
The hospital helps its neediest patients obtain a variety of services, including assistance with housing, transportation, and food. For example, those living in food deserts have difficulty obtaining nutritious food. As a result, many patients rely on local convenience store and fast-food restaurants for much of their diet—which contributes to chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension.
If the hospital can help provide those folks with dietary plans and transportation to a grocery store, they will be able to buy healthier food. Thus, Hennepin can help the population become healthier and avoid some chronic conditions.
“Patients don’t understand how many services are available to them,” Brooks says. “It is up to us to identify eligible patients.” His department matches eligible patients with the right services and helps them fill out paperwork for Medicaid and other programs, which also leads to more reimbursements for the hospital. A patient who has coverage is more likely to take advantage of diagnostic services rather than wait until they are severely ill, which also helps keep costs down.
Phillip Brooks speaks passionately about how people in the US pay for healthcare. It’s not a pretty picture, and racial inequity is a major issue. “Black Americans are 2.6 times more likely than whites to have medical debt,” he points out. But just about anyone—even those in the middle-class neighborhood where he now lives—can be vulnerable to financial hardship when confronted with serious health problems. Hospital medical debt is the leading cause of personal bankruptcy in America.
As VP of revenue management, Brooks does his best to be part of the solution. Sometimes even small changes can help. When he was working for another hospital, Brooks held a focus group with patients for insight into their perceptions about their care and how the hospital treated them. One exasperated woman shouted, “Look at this bill! I can’t [expletive] read it!” Brooks had a look at the document.
“The font was tiny,” Brooks recalls. “I couldn’t read it either!” Even worse, there was no information about charitable care options, payment plans, or other debt relief options. Ever since, he has made sure bills and documents are legible and contain information about options for those who need help making payments.
Phillip Brooks has devoted considerable attention to improving diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) at Hennepin. The organization has had its share of controversy over racial issues, including critics charging that EMS staff—with the encouragement of local law enforcement—were too willing to administer ketamine to non-whites during emergency service calls. Then, in 2022, a photograph surfaced of white Hennepin managers wearing blackface for a Halloween costume (as the Motown group the Supremes). The photo led to considerable criticism from the African American community.
To their credit, Phillip Brooks says, top management has taken significant steps to address systemic racism. “If something happens that is hurtful,” he says, “we should take it head-on. Just rip off the Band-Aid.” The organization stepped up diversity training and sharpened the focus of a DEI committee in the ensuing months after the Halloween blackface controversy. These are positive developments in addressing difficult subjects, Brooks says. “Race and religion are some of the most caustic topics to discuss in an organizational setting.”
Hennepin also works to hire a more diverse workforce by conducting job fairs targeted to the population it serves. Hiring people who better reflect the makeup of the healthcare system’s clientele will help to alleviate some of the systemic racism that permeates healthcare, Brooks believes. When patients interact with employees who share the same cultural and linguistic background, it also makes the healthcare system less daunting to navigate.
Hennepin’s DEI focus includes an informal initiative to boost purchases from minority-owned small businesses. To further this goal, Brooks has asked more established vendors to help up-and-coming minority-owned businesses improve their IT infrastructure and operations, and some have gladly stepped up. “I wasn’t surprised by our vendor response. They know about the disparities; they see it every day in contracting with their member hospital,” Brooks says. “The disproportionate number of minorities in leadership roles is prevalent throughout healthcare, even within the walls of our vendor partners. This disparity compromises creativity and creates a larger gap from an economic perspective.”
When contracting with vendors, Brooks and other Hennepin personnel strongly encourage companies to have their staff “be representative of our demographics,” Brooks says. “This would require bilingual team members who are willing to extoll the mission and values of the organization.”
The willingness of local businesses to hire more minority workers and help minority-owned enterprises prosper offers a bright ray of hope in healthcare—a field that’s not always welcoming to underrepresented groups. Other healthcare organizations can make the same strides toward equity, Phillip Brooks says. “First, you’ve got to be willing to make changes. It starts at the top.”