Deanna Mills, head of safety clinics in the Twin Cities who saw health care as a matter of social justice, dies at 67
The Twin Cities are home to a dozen federally funded clinics that aim to help communities with limited access to health care.
Deanna Mills led three such safety net health centers in a career that spanned four decades, all so that patients could overcome barriers to staying healthy and receiving needed treatment.
Mills saw it as a matter of fairness that everyone should be able to find high-quality, affordable medical and dental care, colleagues said. Her work has focused on supporting low-income Minnesotans and members of racial and ethnic minority groups who routinely suffer worse outcomes when diagnosed with a variety of health conditions.
Mills died March 9 after a short illness with cancer. The Clearwater resident was 67 years old.
“His spirit lives on in every community health center in this state,” said Jonathan Watson, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Community Health Centers. “It takes a unique person to run a community health center – to have business acumen and a spirit of social justice for populations that are often overlooked in our state, unfortunately. So, she was that voice.”
Deanna Eileen Mills was born in Minneapolis. She earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in public health from the University of Minnesota.
Beginning in 1987, Mills served for more than four years as executive director of Southside Community Health Services, a small nonprofit medical and dental clinic that served low-income residents in south Minneapolis.
She moved to a larger community health center in north Minneapolis, as executive director. In this role, Mills participated in a meeting with then-First Lady Hillary Clinton on health care reform proposals.
After several years of consulting work, Mills served for nine years as executive director of the Community-University Health Care Center in the Phillips neighborhood of south Minneapolis.
The clinic was one of Minnesota’s first community health centers, but it was struggling in the mid-2000s with financial problems that forced the layoff of 20 people.
“She really held up, kind of weathered the storm and really kept the team going,” said Colleen McDonald Diouf, the clinic’s current executive director.
Mills helped start and lead a pioneering safety clinic collaboration that improved quality by helping people avoid unnecessary and costly trips to the emergency room and hospital.
It was acknowledged by an outside report in 2013 that described the program’s success and included, without attribution, a comment by Mills explaining how 10 health centers in the group went from “fierce competitors to fierce collaborators”.
“She used to tell me all the time, people need to understand why it’s better to get together…She was just an amazing woman – tough as nails and a heart of gold,” McDonald Diouf said.
Mills recently resigned due to illness from the board of directors of Dodoma Tanzania Health Development, which helps support a major medical center in the African country.
“Her strength was in getting things done through other people, but her magic inspired people to do more things – and do them better – than they thought,” said Anthony Hall, her husband.
The couple loved to travel, including bird watching trips. Popular sightings for Mills included trogons in Costa Rica and a chestnut-collared sparrow in North Dakota.
In addition to her husband, Mills is survived by her children Marcus Hall of Nashville, Demetrius Hall of Brooklyn Center and Patricia Hall of Phoenix. She is also survived by two sisters, a brother and two grandchildren.
A memorial service is scheduled for May 14 at 11 a.m. at Park Avenue United Methodist Church, 3400 Park Av. S., Minneapolis.