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National health care reform must include remedies for racial disparities

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While President Obama lobbies for support for health care reform, debate leaders and advocates representing African-Americans and other people of color argue that coverage and cost-cutting alone isn’t enough.

Reform must also address the racial and ethnic disparities that exist in the current health system, they argue.

President Obama’s Health and Human Services Secretary, Kathleen Sebelius released a report last week that revealed just how deep the health care disparities are for racial minorities and low-income Americans.

“Minorities and low-income Americans are more likely to be sick and less likely to get the care they need,” said Sebelius in a release. “These disparities have plagued our health system and our country for too long. Now, it’s time for Democrats and Republicans to come together to pass reforms this year that help reduce disparities and give all Americans the care they need and deserve.”

Among the racially disparate health statistics, just under half of all African-Americans suffer from a chronic disease. Blacks suffer from diabetes at almost twice the rate of whites and the HIV rate for African-Americans is seven times as high, according to the report.

Also, the report revealed that 40 percent of low-income Americans do not have health insurance, and they are six times less likely to receive care for a health problem than the insured. By contrast, 92 percent of all high-income Americans are insured.

Sebelius’ report served as the basis for a White House round table in which Sebelius invited a panel of advocates to voice their suggestions on how to close the health care disparity gaps.

The panelists represented a wide cross-section of the U. S. population that are deemed as “underserved” – such as racial and ethnic minorities, the gay community and the disabled.

The National Urban League Policy Institute’s executive director Stephanie Jones was one of the panelists that represented the interests of the African-American community.

“We need to analyze the intricate web of things that affect health access and delivery such as the ability to get to a service provider and the availability of quality and healthy food in stores,” Jones suggested.

Dr. David Williams, a professor of public health in African and African-American studies, and sociology at Harvard University says while medical care is important, the lifestyle and environmental factors that make people sick must be examined more thoroughly.

“Even if health care costs are down, we will not have addressed the problem,” Williams says. “We must completely reframe what we mean by health reform because our kids may become the first generation that experiences shorter life spans than their parents.”

Representatives from other interests ranged from organizations such as National Indian Health Board, who spoke passionately about health care conditions in Indian Countries, to the Special Olympics, who wanted to make sure that Americans with disabilities are also included in the conversation.

Nancy Zirkin, executive vice president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said her organization wanted to ensure that civil rights protections were included in any health care reforms.

She also stressed expanding data collection, placing a greater emphasis on promoting preventive care, and strengthening the Office of Minority Health so they will be better able to address the health needs of racial minority populations.

Some members of Congress have already taken steps and proposed ways of closing the health care gaps by introducing a new bill.

Members of the Congressional Tri-Caucus, which is comprised of the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, has introduced a bill that they say is designed to eliminate those racial and ethnic health care disparities.

The Health Equity and Accountability Act of 2009, outlines their priorities for health care reform – to not only reduce racial and ethnic disparities in health care, but to also address a number of other issues important to communities of color.

“Today, over 47 million people lack health insurance in America and although racial and ethnic minorities account for about one third of U.S. population, they account for more than half of the uninsured,” said Congressional Black Caucus Chair Barbara Lee (CA-D). “The Congressional Tri-Caucus stands together and speaks with one voice to demand health care reform now, and to demand an end to the factors that perpetuate racial and ethnic health disparities in this country.”

The bill identifies elements that Caucus members say will provide more comprehensive health care delivery to people of all races. Among the elements are the option of a universal public health insurance, a national community health center system, ways by which to address cultural and linguistic barriers and means by which to promote diversity within health care professions and clinical trial patients.

“Expansion of community, migrant, family and rural health centers will help make this concept a reality,” said Congressman Danny K. Davis (IL-D), who serves as co-chair of the CBC Health and Wellness Taskforce.

“Access to culturally competent quality health care should be one of the most basic of all entitlements.”

Pharoh Martin is an NNPA National Correspondent.

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