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Healthcare Reform Important to Blacks

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By Brian D. Smedley
NNPA Guest Commentary

Health inequities are deep, persistent, and not new. From the cradle to the grave, racial and ethnic minorities suffer from shorter life spans, higher rates of disease and disability, and higher mortality relative to national averages.

These problems have plagued generations of African-Americans and other people of color in the United States. Yet these issues have historically received scant attention in Washington — until now.

Both Congress and the Obama Administration are ramping up efforts to improve health and health care for racial and ethnic minorities and others who face barriers to good health.

On Tuesday, June 9, the Congressional Tri-Caucus (composed of the Congressional Black, Hispanic, and Asian and Pacific Islander Caucuses) introduced the Health Equity and Accountability Act of 2009, a sweeping bill that would address an array of issues ranging from the poor distribution of primary care services in communities of color to the lack of diversity among health professionals. And on the same day, the White House, led by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, convened an historic meeting of health equity activists, scholars, and health care providers to discuss strategies to reduce health inequities and improve the health of all racial and ethnic groups.

Why the focus on health inequality?  One, the new political landscape—driven by a president who clearly understands how and why racial inequality has been a difficult conversation in the United States—favors tackling these challenges in the context of major health care reform legislation being considered by Congress.

Second, persistent leadership from some members of Congress, such as CBC Health Braintrust Chair Congresswoman Donna Christensen, is beginning to pay off as more members of Congress recognize the importance of eliminating health inequality. Christensen, a physician representing the Virgin Islands, seeks to ensure that any health legislation emerging from Congress addresses the needs of communities of color.

Third, it is becoming clear that any serious effort to expand health insurance coverage, improve the quality of health care, and contain health care costs—Congress’ stated goals for health reform—must address health inequities.

This is because these problems are often exacerbated among racial and ethnic minorities: people of color not only are disproportionately uninsured and underinsured (despite the presence of full-time workers in the vast majority of their families), they are also more likely than whites to suffer from poor quality care and face high health care expenses.  People of color are therefore the “canaries in the coal mine” of health reform, offering a clear signal of how distressed U.S. health care systems are.

Finally, to the extent that some groups, such as racial and ethnic minorities, face a greater burden of illness and disability, the U.S. economy will suffer.

Given the tremendous economic challenges facing the nation, many in Congress and the Administration understand that we cannot afford to allow African-Americans and other people of color—currently one-third of the population—to suffer from the kind of poor health that contributes to their economic marginalization.  It’s essential to reap the benefit of the talents, skills, and capacity for hard work of all Americans. To fail to do so would continue to drag the U.S. economy down.

And given that one in every two people living in the United States will be a person of color by the year 2042, it’s clear that inaction to address health inequality is inexcusable.

What’s needed now is for Congress and the Administration to hear—loudly and clearly—that the American people want health reform to have a significant focus on the needs of communities of color.

Public policies, even much-needed ones, are rarely enacted into law without a significant push from the grassroots. The nation’s health—and economy—depend on it.

Brian D. Smedley, Ph.D.is vice president and director of the Health Policy Institute of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

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