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Tekisha Everette

Healthcare Equity Must be a Central Focus of Reform

If you pick up a paper or read any political blogs right now, you know that skyrocketing healthcare costs and the burgeoning rolls of the un- and under-insured are key issues in Decision ’08. But while the debate rages across the nation, something that has consistently been defined as one of the greatest failings of our current system has again been largely overlooked: health disparities.

In an effort to make health equity a central focus of the national debate on healthcare reform, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the National Conference of Black Mayors (NCBM) recently released Lifeline to Health Equity: Policies For Real Health Care Reform. The report addresses the widening gaps in healthcare access and quality that shorten the lives of African Americans, Latinos and other minorities, and provides key recommendations for reform.

It's a painful fact: people of color in the United States live sicker and die quicker--from the premature cradle to the early grave. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), African Americans can still expect to live 6-10 fewer years than their white counterparts, and they have the highest rates of death due to diabetes; heart disease; and breast, lung, and colon cancer than any other ethnic group. The numbers are similarly grim for Latinos and other minority groups. The prevalence of diabetes among American Indians and Alaska
Natives, for example, is more than twice that for all adults in the United States (DHHS 2007).

It should come as no surprise that inconsistent and inadequate access to quality preventive care is what’s driving these numbers. According to the SEIU/NCBM report, while 21 percent of white Americans were uninsured at any point in 2002, about 28 percent of African Americans and 44 percent of Hispanics faced the same plight. The disparate quality of care is even more telling. A growing pool of evidence shows that even with similar insurance and income levels, black and Latino patients are less likely to receive the same life-extending and life-saving procedures as White patients (Institute of Medicine, 2003b).

In the words of Dr. Vaughn Whittaker, an SEIU member and Chief Resident at Harlem Hospital in Manhattan who has blogged about healthcare divisions, “it’s these extremes—the huge disparities in the delivery of care—that truly define the U.S. healthcare system.”

But today, in the wealthiest nation in the world, these growing divisions are simply unacceptable.

Of course, there is hope. Today, in an historic Presidential election when the prospects for meaningful reform are greater than ever, the SEIU/NCBM report outlines key steps that can make healthcare inequity part of the conversation about reform:

1. Universal access to health insurance—while it will not eliminate the problem on its own, it’s still the most important step toward eliminating healthcare disparities. 2. Improve access to high quality care—increase the number of culturally competent healthcare providers in communities of color by offering trainings and providing incentives; consistently collect and monitor data on racial and ethnic health disparities. 3. Grow the movement of healthcare voters—empower people to advocate for reform.

We’re facing an historic opportunity to make a meaningful overhaul of our broken healthcare system. Leveraging its 1.1 million members, SEIU Healthcare (the healthcare arm of SEIU) has identified 4.6 million healthcare workers in 18 battleground states. We’re going to use our strength to galvanize these workers, make sure they are registered to vote and get them to the polls on Election Day. And after November 4, SEIU will spend $50 million in the first 100 days of the new Congress to ensure that we pass meaningful healthcare reform that is universally accessible, comprehensive and equitable to everyone.

The race is on, and more than ever, we have a chance to reform shape a system that meets all our needs. It’s high time the wealthiest nation in the world become the healthiest nation in the world—not just for a lucky few, but for every man, woman and child, regardless of the color of their skin.

- Tekisha Everette, SEIU, Senior Legislative Advocate for Healthcare

Note: On June 19th SEIU joins groups across the country in our celebration of Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the day African slaves received notice of the Emancipation Proclamation. Often celebrated as a day African Americans focus on improving life in their communities, SEIU is honoring Juneteenth this year by calling attention to health disparities. Check out the website, to learn more about SEIU’s activities to ensure healthcare equality is a centerpiece of reform.

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Posted at 7:14 AM, Jun 19, 2008 in Health Care
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