Curtis Robinson had health insurance when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997 and he survived. But the Hartford businessman said he watched too many others die because they didn’t have access to care.

Since that time he has put up $1 million of his own funds and co-founded the Men’s Health Institute at Saint Francis Hospital.

Robinson, who is on the board of directors at Saint Francis, said that too often African American men without health insurance die of prostate cancer because they don’t get treatment until it’s far too late.

Robinson made those remarks Friday at the Bushnell Theater in Hartford where U.S. Rep.  John Larson, D-1st, and members of the Congressional Black Caucus met to talk about health care disparities and other social justice issues.

Health care disparities have been part of the civil rights fight since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.‘s days when King himself said, “Of all forms of injustice, inequality in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”

Today, black men in America are twice as likely to die of the disease than are other American men, according to the American Cancer Society.

Robinson encountered a man 16 months ago in the emergency room who delayed treatment and caught the cancer far too late. 

“How do we stop that,” he asked the doctor..

The doctor recommended setting up some sort of institute to pre-screen men for the disease and hopefully catch it before cancer cells have a chance to migrate to their lymph nodes, he said.

“We could go out to churches, barber shops, synagogues, mosques, wherever men gather and do testing,” he said.

It all seemed like a good idea but the institute needed funds to get off the ground. Robinson put up the money and a project coordinator was hired. Dr. Marcus McKinney, the institute’s pastoral outreach coordinator found 35 churches, most in the greater-Hartford area, willing to offer up their space for testing, he said.

Since then, the Men’s Health Institute has tested over 1,100 men and caught cancer in 30 of those men, who have been operated on, Robinsons said. The screening, biopsy, and if needed the removal of the prostate are done for free if the patients are not insured or underinsured, he said.

Robinson spoke of one patient, a truck driver in Florida, who was dying of prostate cancer. He heard a radio segment featuring Robinson and decided to call him. The man got on a Greyhound bus and came all the way to Connecticut, Robinson said.

Doctors examined the man and determined he had advanced prostate cancer.

“We are operating on him right now. He’s in the operating room right now and the doctor just called me and said they think they got all the cancer,” he told the crowd.

Robinson said the pre-screening aspect of the institute is crucial. Even the uninsured can get treatment at an emergency room but only enough to stabilize their conditions, he said. Beyond that patients are referred to their physicians, he said.

“What happen if you don’t have a physician? You go home and you die,” he said.

Robinson said there hasn’t been enough research studies into prostate cancer and the research that has been conducted was done primarily in Scandinavia.

“I said you just killed 49 million black people because I don’t think there’s many black people in Scandinavia,” he said.

The institute has recently undertaken a joint venture with Tuskegee University in Alabama to research why the disease so disproportionately impacts African American men, Robinson said. They supplied 2,000 tissue samples for research, he said.

But the scarcity of academic interest in the issue troubles Robinson.

“No one in America is doing studies on this except for Tuskegee and us. No one is doing studies on Sickle Cell. But yet they give certain universities, now I’m not going to call their names, $40 million to see why a butterfly wing don’t fly,” he said.

Robinson said it’s an injustice that’s driven by racism and economics. There’s little profit in doing research to find a cure for people who are largely uninsured and can’t pay for care, he said.

  Congressman Donald Payne, NJ-10th, said it’s due to a flawed health care system where major decisions are made by insurance executives who make millions every year.

“It’s the ability to pay for it. You’ll find more research on how to get wrinkles out of old women’s faces rather than a cure for malaria. Because who’s going to pay in the third world for malaria treatment,” he said.

Payne said he supports legislation to establish a single-payer system that would “cut out the middleman.”

But attempts at instituting single payer legislation have been unsuccessful in passing through Congress, since it was introduced during the Clinton administration. Connecticut’s own Sen. Joseph Lieberman was responsible for killing a single-payer option in last year’s Affordable Health Care Act, sending lawmakers like Payne and Larson back to the drawing board.

For now, Robinson and the institute will continue to do what it can for the uninsured here in Connecticut.

“We take anybody who comes to us. Doesn’t make any difference about race, doesn’t make any difference if you poor, you don’t have money—I’m going to try to save you,” he said.