In the mid-1990s, when California Governor, Pete Wilson, denied prenatal care to undocumented immigrant women, Dr. Sandra Hernandez said politely, "No thank you, Governor." Believing that the order was misguided policy and morally wrong, she stood up. As the first Hispanic and first woman to serve as public health director for the city and county of San Francisco, she risked her position and her career by sending her staff out into the city's heavily immigrant Mission District to reassure women that local clinics would not turn them away. The doctor's bold actions helped convince city officials to join a coalition that successfully sued to block Gov. Wilson's plan.
As public health director, Dr. Hernandez also helped create a public HMO to handle an indigent population and implemented the country's first needle-exchange program with drug users. In another groundbreaking move, Dr. Hernandez convinced San Francisco City officials to join with philanthropic organizations to provide supervised housing in residential hotels for chronically ill homeless patients
Today, as a medical doctor and relentless supporter of the poor and uninsured, even in the face of great opposition, she not only continues her fight for them – she continues to win. As chief executive officer of the San Francisco Foundation -- where again she was the first woman and Hispanic in the post -- she is furthering her pioneering work in health care reform. The foundation, which distributes $60 million yearly, is dedicated to improving access and quality health care for the underserved.
The Foundation provides aid to low-income immigrant parents, foster children, nurse educators, ethnic dance choreographers, disaster victims, environmentalists and religious leaders. One of the ten largest nonprofi ts in the U.S., it also aids literacy eff orts, aff ordable housing projects, wetland cleanups and voter registration drives.
"It is a phenomenal place to do public service," she says. "We have a large endowment and fl exible resources that allow us to react quickly to solve problems."
In recognition for her exemplary work, Hispanic Business Magazine has named Dr. Hernandez the 2008 Woman of the Year.
Dr. Hernandez's "keen leadership" makes her an ideal winner of the award, says Jesus Chavarria, the publisher and founding editor of Hispanic Business magazine.
"She is obviously a very seasoned advocate of health care ideas that will advance the national debate," he says. "She has demonstrated an incredible drive and acquisition of knowledge and skills, not only focused on doing good, but on developing opportunities for producing public good."
In typical fashion, Dr. Hernandez, who earned her medical degree at Tuft s University School of Medicine, downplays her career accomplishments.
"This is the right thing to do," she says. But even as she answers, she is involved with yet another high-profile health-care battle.
In 2006, she was tapped by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom to co-chair a council on universal health care. The resulting $200 million annual plan, called "Healthy San Francisco," will provide comprehensive health care services for 82,000 uninsured adults, more than half of whom have jobs. It is the first program of its kind for an American city.
The real challenge came when Mr. Newsom appointed 40 people to the universal health care council, representing city government, local businesses, unions, clinics, hospitals, churches, insurance agencies, and advocacy groups for minimum wage earners and the homeless. It was not, seemingly, a group of people that could agree on much of anything. Mayor Newsom gave them 100 days to come up with a plan.
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