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Rep. Donna M. Christensen

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Closing the Health Care Gap

Posted: 08/05/11 01:13 PM ET

One of the hardest things that I have ever done was to leave my family practice of 21 years and my patients to enter the world of national politics. I practiced pretty much full-time, right up to winning my primary.

However, I left with a commitment to make a difference in the health care and health status of communities like mine which have long suffered from the impact of health inequities. It has been my main focus since coming to Washington. 

In a country of plenty such as ours -- one founded on principles of equality and justice -- that African-Americans and Native Americans in particular, but all people of color in general, suffer disproportionately from disease and die in excess numbers prematurely from preventable causes is inexcusable and unacceptable.

Ridding our country of these tragic inequities is an important priority of the Congressional Black Caucus and I have been privileged and honored to work with these committed and hard-working men and women to lead this effort.

Over the hundreds of years of these inequities, the focus on the diseases themselves has not resulted in much improvement in the health of people of color.

One of the reasons is that the blame has been almost entirely placed on the individual, with none placed on the system -- one of institutionalized racism and inherent inequities.

It is clear that to close the gaps in health, the entire social, economic and ambient environment in which many of us live must be the target of our efforts.

Just as an example: the maternal mortality rate for African-American women is nearly three times higher than for White women; the infant mortality rate for Native Americans and African-Americans is more than one and a half times greater, and more than two and a half times greater, respectively, than for Whites;  African-Americans have higher mortality rates from most cancers than any other racial and ethnic group; the AIDS diagnosis rate is nearly ten times higher among African-American and three times higher among Latino adult and adolescents than Whites adult and adolescents; African-American men were 1.3 times and 1.4 times, respectively, more likely to have new cases of lung and prostate cancer, as compared to White men and American Indian and Alaska Natives are almost twice as likely as Whites to develop a case of Hepatitis C, Asian Americans are  2.5 times more likely than Whites to contract Hepatitis A, and African-Americans are 60 percent more likely than Whites to die from viral hepatitis. These disparities -- which have persisted in this nation for decades -- are largely responsible for the United States' poor health standings globally.  Regardless of one's opinion on health inequities, these are conditions that everyone should want to change. 

In addition to the health impact of health disparities, there also is a cost to everyone from the existence of these and other disparities.  In fact, a study launched by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that the three-year estimate of the direct and indirect medical costs of health disparities was $1.24 trillion. 

Through the concerted efforts of the Congressional Tri-caucus, many provisions -- beyond expanding access to health insurance -- were included in PPACA to address health equity.  As we continue to work to protect them, we are preparing to continue our efforts with a bicameral health equity bill in the 112th Congress.

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously once said, "of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane."  It is time to end this inhumanity to our brothers and sisters of color, as well as to those who live in rural areas and our territories, and the LGBT community now!