|Closing the gap in health care disparities
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy
Access to quality health care should be a basic right for every American, not a privilege for the few who can afford it. Appallingly, 15 percent of the population — almost 45 million people — lacks health insurance. The problem is even more critical for racial and ethnic minorities, who represent a third of the population but over half of the uninsured.
As a result, serious health disparities exist throughout America. Because of the high cost of health care, the uninsured often forgo needed care, or wait until it is too late to seek it. They are less likely to have a primary care doctor and less likely to have preventive screenings like mammograms or other early detection tests. Often the only care they receive is in a hospital emergency room. According to the Institute of Medicine, 18,000 Americans die prematurely each year solely because they do not have health insurance coverage.
Racial and ethnic minorities suffer a greater burden of illness and death. Compared to whites, African Americans have a lower life expectancy and are much more likely to die from stroke. Asian and Pacific Islander women are 50 percent more likely to have cervical cancer than white women. Native American and Alaska Native men have a 30 percent higher likelihood of being diagnosed with stomach cancer or liver cancer than white men.
We cannot continue to ignore these widening disparities. The Minority Health and Health Disparity Elimination Act I plan to introduce today will provide grants to communities to increase public awareness about access to health care and disease prevention, including grants targeted for communities that are at a high risk for adverse health outcomes due to a persistent, historical lack of availability of health and economic resources.
It will strengthen the National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities at the National Institutes of Health and improve its role in coordinating and planning minority health and health disparities research. In an effort to monitor and increase diversity at NIH, the bill also requires the Secretary of Health and Human Services to work with the Center to determine the extent to which racial and ethnic minority groups are represented among senior physicians and scientists of the national research institutes, and in those conducting research with funds provided by those institutes.
Since racial and ethnic minorities account for only 6 percent of the nation’s doctors and 7 percent of nurses and dentists, the Act will also strengthen diversity programs that help colleges and universities recruit and retain minority students and students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Studies make clear that minority health professionals are more likely to care for minority patients and to practice in underserved areas. Sustaining these programs is essential to improving health care for all Americans.
Americans deserve high quality health care. This bill strengthens research in health care quality by establishing a grant program for health care delivery sites to study how to best address health care disparities, and it also provides support for public-private partnerships to evaluate and identify best practices in disease management strategies and interventions.
To address the lower quality of care that minority patients typically receive because of cultural and language barriers, the Act supports the development of culturally competent curricula for health professions schools and creates an Internet clearinghouse to increase cultural competency to improve communication between doctors and patients.
The Act will support a stronger Office of Minority Health and provide the resources that office needs to continue to work to eliminate racial and ethnic health disparities, including promoting and expanding efforts to increase minority enrollment in clinical trials.
The Act also requires uniform data collection standards for federal health programs and creates an advisory committee at the Food and Drug Administration to address issues related to racial and ethnic minorities.
People’s health should not depend on the color of their skin, the size of their bank account, or where they live. In a nation as advanced as ours, with so much state-of-the-art medical technology for preventing illness and caring for the sick, it’s shameful that so many health disparities still exist in so many parts of America. We need a bipartisan commitment to give much higher priority to this festering issue in our society. If Congress and the administration work together, we can end these unacceptable health disparities once and for all.
Edward M. Kennedy is the senior U.S. senator from Massachusetts.