“We will no longer tolerate a nation with health disparities,” Rep. Donna Christian-Christensen (D-VI) declared yesterday at an event at the Center for American Progress. “It is critically important to the productivity, competitiveness, and long-term solvency of the United States.”
Christensen joined a panel of experts to discuss the continuing disparities of health care along race lines, and a new report from the Center, Community Health Interventions: Prevention’s Role in Reducing Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities, that emphasizes the effectiveness of community health programs in reducing disparities.
“Health care access and quality for many patients of color is poorer than should be tolerated,” Dr. Brian Smedley, Research Director of The Opportunity Agenda, explained. “Health care services remain separate and unequal for many communities…It is a national shame.”
Despite the continuing “medical apartheid,” as Smedley describes it, policy makers are not actively seeking policy solutions on the issue. “Most of my colleagues still don’t get it,” lamented Christensen, referencing the detrimental budget cuts President Bush suggests. “This is an investment we can’t afford not to make.”
Christensen observed that those who view investments in reducing disparities as unaffordable don’t understand that this spending would represent “good debt”—in contrast to the funds we have borrowed to fund the war in Iraq and tax cuts for the very richest Americans. “Humanity should demand that we go into a much smaller debt than we did for any of those [to solve this problem],” Christensen charged. “[However, despite the fact that] the corporate world has reaped the benefits of the deficit spending the last six years…the big limiting factor is money!”
Funding is not the only problem, however. “It’s also a problem of missed opportunities,” explained Meredith King, Health Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress. “In fact, there would have been 83,000 fewer black deaths in 2000 alone if disparities had been eliminated in the past century—half of which are from preventable diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
King discussed the findings of her report released yesterday, Community Health Interventions, which concluded that community interventions that focus on community- or population-based prevention can reduce the prevalence of health risk factors in communities of color, and therefore disparities. King called for increased leadership on the issue and said, “Any health reform effort must focus on reducing racial and ethnic health disparities while making disease prevention and health promotion a priority.”
Providing some of this leadership, Christensen said “$2 trillion is a lot of money, and we’re not spending it on prevention.” Smedley agreed about the need for an added focus on prevention.
The event closed with a presentation from LaTonya Chavis, Director of Charlotte REACH 2010. She discussed the first-hand success that her organization has had with reducing rates of cardiovascular disease and diabetes in the African American population of northwest Charlotte, NC. Charlotte REACH 2010 effectively increases the resources available to this community including monthly Farmers’ Markets, free exercise classes at the local YMCA, and counseling from Lay Health Advisors. Chavis says, “We have based this [program] on a prevention model…[and the advisors] have done a tremendous job,” Chavis said. “Just to have a person that somebody can say ‘Hey, there’s the health lady’ has really made a difference in this community.” Her program was highlighted in King’s paper.
All of the panelists agreed that successes like REACH should be models for other efforts to reduce the racial inequality in health status. “It is a very challenging issue…but it doesn’t need a revolution,” Smedley said.
Yet Christensen also emphasized that much work still needs to be done. “We need everyone across the country to bring this to the attention of their delegates in their own districts,” Christensen said. “We can no longer just ask for it, we must demand for the investment to be made!”
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