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Maren Fustgaard

1996 Upper Midwest Human Rights Fellow
Fellowship Site: Commonwealth Medical Association, London, England

By Pat McGroarty


Health Care reform is a leading issue in the global community. In human rights circles, the right to adequate health care for all people is an immediate concern, and the best method for providing that health care is a point of great political conflict. This is a situation that Maren Fustgaard, currently an employee of Medica health plan, has worked with since her time at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.

“I was attracted to health care because it’s a public policy issue that has very personal implications. I had done some work during my undergraduate studies at California State, Long Beach that compared the health care systems of different countries. After college, I knew I wanted to work with policy issues and enrolled in the Humphrey Institute. There, I was able to study the public health and the public policy side of health care. It was a way to bridge my studies into a human rights field: a way to view health care as a human right,” said Fustgaard in a recent interview.

During her time at the Humphrey Institute, Fustgaard was looking for the opportunity to study health care issues outside of the United States. She was especially interested in women’s health care issues after taking several courses at Humphrey that exposed her to the discrepancy between the availability of heath care for men and women.

Fustgaard learned of the Commonwealth Medical Association in London, England and of the Upper Midwest Fellowship Program through a professor at the Humphrey Institute. She was granted a 1996 Human Rights Fellowship and worked as an intern for six weeks at Commonwealth Medical Association: “It’s an organization based in London that works as a resource for medical associations within nations of the Commonwealth. That was an education for me, because I never thought about the different African countries and island nations that were at one time a part of the British Commonwealth.”

Her duties at the Association included independent research, coordinating events and benefits, and attending conferences, such as a women’s round table on adolescent health and HIV issues. The experience gave Fustgaard a new perspective on the difference between health care systems in the U.S. and abroad: “I was always drawing comparisons between the structure of health care in Europe, the American system, and the plight of these developing nations where there was no insurance at all. There are three paradigms: charity-type system in these poor nations, the U.K.’s socialized, government-run system, and the U.S. private payer system. It was a great opportunity to see the pros and cons of each.”

After returning from her fellowship and graduating from the Humphrey Institute, Fustgaard worked for Global Volunteers, an organization that coordinates volunteer service programs abroad and in the U.S. She then took a position at the Minnesota Department of Human Services. Eventually, Fustgaard’s desire to work with health care issues led her to Medica.

“I get to work on a variety of projects and policy issues, and my position is a chance to be involved with public sector initiatives while working in the private sector,” said Fustgaard as she explained her current job. “Medica does more social service work than I would have guessed. Of course, some of it is with an eye on reducing health care expenditure, but it benefits some great programs. I sit on a board that gives grants to different organizations that run prevention programs. Some examples have been programs to educate parents on how to avoid lead poisoning in their children, increase literacy among immigrant children, and groups that protect the rights of recent African immigrants to basic health care. These issues were at the center of my fellowship, and I feel I got some basic information that really helps me in my position now.”

Fustgaard’s 1996 Fellowship and her experience at Medica have given her an outsider’s perspective at alternate systems of health care that goes beyond that of many of her colleagues. It’s a perspective she is thankful for, and one that impacts her perception of America’s health care crisis: “I can see the benefits of the single payer system, because it eliminates the competing interests that are such a problem in the U.S. Yet, working for the state government and seeing that kind of bureaucracy has shown me the downside of that system too. I know that as an employed person, I would rather have coverage that my employer treats as a generous perk to me than be in the same line with everyone else. Health care is such a basic human right because when people don’t have coverage, it becomes such a major issue that it can outweigh everything else in their lives. If you don’t have the ability to take care of your own and your family’s health, everything else falls by the wayside.”

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