Irish man Vince Keane from Ballyhaunis County Mayo is helping U.S. President Barack Obama to try and overhaul the health care system in the U.S.

On Wednesday, September 9, when President Obama gave the most important speech of his early presidency, Keane sat in the gallery with the first lady, Jill Biden and Victoria Kennedy, wife of the late Senator Edward Kennedy.

Keane, 63, is president and CEO of Unity Health Care, a community health care center that serves 81,000 people in Washington D.C., people who would otherwise go without health care. Unity is part of about 1,000 centers nationwide that provide care for the uninsured and others who lack health care in the commercial market.

In June, Keane was introduced to Michelle Obama when she visited the Unity Health Care facility in the Upper Cardozo area of Washington to announce the release of $851 million in grants to address immediate and pressing health care center facility needs. These grants will provide immediate access to health care for millions of Americans.

Senator Kennedy made the first federal appropriation for these health care facilities in 1965, and they were part of President Johnson's war on poverty. The Obama administration expects to expand these centers as part of a health care reform bill to serve the many millions of uninsured.

“Mrs. Obama came to visit us in January and again in June to see some of the work we were doing,” Keane tells the Irish Voice on Monday.

“She met with some of our clients, our doctors, held a press conference, and a few weeks later I got invited by the first lady to attend the president’s health care address last week.

“What an honor it really was to be there sitting in the same box as the first lady, Mrs. Biden and Vicki Kennedy.”

Keane, who visits Ireland nearly every year, emigrated to the U.S. from Mayo 40 years ago and spent the first 20 years as a priest in the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia.

“I left the priesthood in 1987 and shortly after began working with what was then known as Healthcare for the Homeless,” said Keane.

He sees his work, as a provider of health care to the uninsured, as a continuation of his mission to help the less fortunate in our society.

“The early Irish immigrants built hospitals and schools to serve those who otherwise would go without health care or education,” he said. “Irish Americans have never forgotten the people left behind.”

Keane is proud of his dedication to advocating for the underprivileged, and feels he is continuing the Kennedy tradition of commitment to social programs.
Even while being honored for his work at Unity Health Care, Keane wants to focus on the issue at hand. Health care reform, he says, remains a high priority for all Americans, especially the uninsured. Therefore it was extra special for him to be able to attend the address to Congress last week.
Following the address, Keane had a one-on-one visit with President Obama.

“Those who were in the box with Mrs. Obama were invited downstairs after the president’s address to meet him. He is just a lovely man,” said Keane.

“It really was quite an honor. He (Obama) was so gracious. I complimented him on his wonderful speech and ensured him that we there to support his efforts.”

Keane told the president, “I am from Ireland, and over there they are checking out your ancestry but that I’m not from your county, Offaly. I'm from Mayo.”

Keane said the president laughed at his remark because he has heard time and time again how Ireland has claimed him as one of its own.

The Mayo man feels that both of the Obamas are “major assets” to the U.S.

“I believe very strongly in what the president is trying to achieve with health care reform,” he said.

Keane, who has seen his fair share of hardship down through the years with Unity Health Care, said it’s imperative that those in power listen to the president and pass a fair and workable health care package as soon as possible.

“I really do believe that common sense will prevail this time, and although I’m sure not everything will be agreed upon the key elements of the program will pass, the elements he outlined in his speech in Congress last week,” Keane feels.

In recent months, with more people losing their jobs and subsequently their health insurance, Keane said that there are many more people utilizing Unity Health Care and not enough resources in place.

“The funding we just got will increase our ability to help more people,” he said.

The largest Unity Health Care building is located in the heart of an immigrant population, said Keane.

“We do serve a tremendous large immigrant population and we don’t every check anyone’s immigration status. We see all comers,” he said.

“Pay is not a barrier. We are required to serve people regardless of ability to pay. If they can pay we have a sliding fee scale according to their income. No one will go unseen for any reason.”