Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

Barrett Blasted on Infant Mortality Grant

African-American led organizations say Mayor, Kowalik killed their effort to get grant.

By - Apr 16th, 2019 10:05 am
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Board on display in Milwaukee Health Services lobby. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Board on display in Milwaukee Health Services lobby. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

It should have been good news.

A partnership led by the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin has won a five-year, $5 million Healthy Start grant to address African-American infant mortality in Milwaukee. A 2017 Milwaukee Health Department study found that black infants died at a rate three times greater than Caucasian infants.

So the news of a multi-million dollar grant award designed to address this striking disparity should have been a cause for celebration. But controversy has arisen because a partnership known as the Milwaukee African American Perinatal Health Collaborative (MAAPHC), submitted a competing bid and lost, despite scoring highly.

The partnership, which consists of the African-American led groups Milwaukee Health Services, African American Breastfeeding Network, My Father’s House and Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin as well as UW-Milwaukee’s Zilber School of Public Health, believes that Mayor Tom Barrett, Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik and an unidentified state official undermined its application by encouraging Children’s Hospital to apply.

“The Mayor and his Health Commissioner have violated our trust,” said Milwaukee Health Services President and CEO Dr. Tito Izard at a two-hour long press conference held Monday afternoon. Izard walked media members and community leaders through a series of emails that he says prove that Barrett and Kowalik supported MAAPHC’s application and then without explaining why to Izard changed course and encouraged CHW to apply for the grant.

Former interim Health Commissioner Patricia McManus, who has long led by the MAAPHC-participating Black Health Coalition, is central to the issue. Izard credits McManus with coming up for the idea to apply. The former commissioner, who stepped down when Kowalik was hired last September, would have served as the project director under MAAPHC’s bid.

Under McManus, the Black Health Coalition lost the same federal grant five years ago, failing to have its grant renewed, and Milwaukee has been without the federal support since. The coalition, under McManus, had received the grant going back to 1998. Losing the grant eliminated a substantial chunk of the organization’s funding. According to federal form 990 tax filings, McManus’s salary dropped from $170,000 to $83,000 from 2014 to 2016.

But Monday McManus said the work continued. “We continue to help our community whether we have the money or not,” said the public health veteran.

She said MAAPHC winning the grant would have represented a chance for capacity building and leadership training for Milwaukee’s African American community, instead, the proceeds will go to the well-established Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. “Milwaukee is the largest plantation in the north,” said McManus. “If nothing else this is one of the most egregious examples of that.”

Kowalik, an African American, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in advance of the press conference that McManus’s involvement was cause for concern for her and state officials. She also said she contacted Children’s Hospital only when she felt concern that MAAPHC would not finish its application in time.

But Izard, who is calling for a community meeting for Barrett and others to share why they encouraged the hospital to apply and backed away from MAAPHC, said he doesn’t know why the city changed directions. “How is it that there was a concern, but no one asked me?” asked Izard. He also said questions remain on what happened with former Commissioner Bevan K. Baker and his resignation.

“Those who know me know I would not do a press conference to attack anyone,” said Izard. He said he has worked “behind the scenes” for months to resolve the issue, but has not received answers from Kowalik, Barrett or Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton.

Izard spent a good portion of the press conference walking through a chain of emails between MAAPHC and Kowalik, keying in on a stretch in early November. “One of the things that I love that she did is she documented her own circumstance,” said Izard. He said he was forced to remove her from MAAPHC because she was not transparent, citing that in a 12-hour period she went from supporting the MAAPHC’s bid to encouraging Children’s Hospital to submit its own. “How was Commissioner Kowalik able to attend Children’s first meeting within four days with Bob Duncan when she couldn’t find a single time to meet with us in the 30 days she was working with us? We want to know,” said Izard as he ticked off a lengthy list of specific questions illustrating how Kowalik and the city moved to back a different bid.

“Bottom line is I have been ignored,” concluded Izard.

But despite the setback and lingering questions, Izard is happy with his group’s work. “We are very proud of the work done by the collaborative,” said Izard. MAAPHC scored a 96 out of 100 he said, but was notified by the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration that a competing bid (now known to be the one by Children’s Hospital) outscored theirs.

State senator Lena Taylor was also present at the press conference and backs MAAHPC. “Shame on anyone that put their finger on the scale,” said the senator. “I know it’s not adultery, but it feels like it.”

Taylor criticized the administration of Governor Tony Evers, saying: “I have not seen the type of commitment to the African-American community that I heard on the campaign trail (from Evers).” But Evers’ administration might not be involved. Izard told Urban Milwaukee he does not know the identity of the involved state official or when they contacted Children’s Hospital to support its application. Evers took office in January. He only learned of the state communication during a discussion with CHW head Bob Duncan after the grant award was announced.

Taylor, McManus and Izard also raised concerns about where the money will go. Izard said he wasn’t sure if CHW intends to do much of the work itself or work with partners. A press release from CHW lists the City of Milwaukee Health Department, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin Community Services, Black Child Development Institute-Milwaukee, Birth in Color Initiative, Easter Seals and “other community stakeholders” as partners on the grant. The three MAAHPC advocates said they are not familiar with some of the groups.

Taylor did succeed in rallying support for action in the room, suggesting that an online petition be started. Among those who responded positively was the Sherman Park activist Vaun Mayes, whose indictment for conspiring to firebomb a police station has created controversy among activists who support him. Speaking of Kowalik, Mayes said: “I think she should resign and we should call for her to resign.”

In response to a request on the matter, Barrett’s office provided a letter dated November 21st that was provided to Izard in support of his application. McManus said at the press conference that similar letters came from Congresswoman Gwen Moore and U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin.

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Categories: City Hall, Health, Politics

4 thoughts on “City Hall: Barrett Blasted on Infant Mortality Grant”

  1. frank a schneiger says:

    The underlying assumptions here are pretty depressing. They include: (1) There should be no competition for a federal grant; (2) The Commissioner of Health should seek to steer grants to groups that claim to represent and speak for “the community,” and any action that fails to do that is a betrayal and working for the plantation. (3) The primary purpose of the grant is to fund organizations to build capacity and develop leadership rather than reduce a shameful rate of infant mortality; (4) The Children’s Hospital’s higher score is irrelevant. (5) The earlier loss of the Healthy Start grant under a principal in the current ‘community” application is irrelevant. And (6), given its institutional importance and location, there is no discussion of why Children’s Hospital hasn’t made a bigger dent in this problem in the past.

    Possibly most depressing is the assumption that there cannot now be a fruitful partnership between an institution with the right infrastructure, but also a reputation for arrogance and not listening, and community groups that can lead the way in bridging the chasm of mistrust that exists, with the result being a dramatic reduction in infant mortality. Given what is at stake, identifying an honest broker who could work to bridge these gaps and build an institutional-community partnership is quite literally a matter of life and death for the most vulnerable among us.

  2. lccfccoop2 says:

    GREAT comment Mr. Schneiger. I have questions too. So far the reporting on the continuing war for control of the city health department has consisted of reporting on press conferences.

    I would like to know:

    WHY did Patricia McManus’s group lose the federal grant to battle black infant mortality? Was it over something important?

    Isn’t it fair to question Lena Taylor’s objectivity since our lieutenant governor tried to unseat her (and failed).

    What has Patricia McManus done in fact to combat infant mortality and are her ideas opposed to those of the “establishment”? Maybe she is right and should get another shot particularly if she is now surrounded by people like Dr. Izard and the Zilber Foundation folks.

    But calling Milwaukee the “plantation” isn’t going to ease the path with the new City Health Commissioner who beat her out for the job.

    And yes – what ABOUT the white controlled institutions whose non profit executives make millions? What do they know about working in poor communities and what HAVE they done specifically to combat black infant mortality. $5 million is a small amount to them. I suspect they just withdrew because of acrimony. Good reporting could tell us.

    Finally – whatever was the story of Bevan Baker and will he ever be held accountable for the damage he did?

  3. Jeramey Jannene says:

    @lccfccoop2 – Most of my reporting on the Health Department has been from committee meetings. A few pieces from press conferences, but this was far from a normal press conference.

    In 2014, McManus didn’t have the grant revoked. Her organization’s application to have it issued for another five years did not score high enough to have it issued again. I don’t have any more details than that.

    Your point on Lena Taylor is correct. I didn’t include it in the article because Taylor wasn’t the focus of the piece.

    The Zilber Foundation is not backing MAAHPC. UWM’s School of Public Health is/was, it’s just named after Zilber. As McManus said at the press conference, it isn’t unusual for officials to back multiple bids.

    Kowalik didn’t beat McManus out for the job. Part of her becoming interim was agreeing not to seek a permanent post. There still is plenty of reason to believe that isn’t a great relationship (more on that in a future piece).

    The Common Council could subpoena Baker to appear, but not to actually speak (5th amendment). Once Baker he indicated he would take that path, Hamilton backed away from doing the former.

    As a reporter, many of these things are difficult to get a straight answer on and devolve into a he-said, she-said thing. I’ll continue to try.

  4. lccfccoop2 says:

    Thx – looking forward to more follow up.

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