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Dr. L. Toni Lewis Headshot

Honoring a Dream for Health Care Justice

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More than 40 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to the Medical Committee for Human Rights, saying, "Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane." This committee formed out of a need to support more than 100 northern doctors, nurses and other health care workers who traveled to Mississippi during Freedom Summer to provide emergency care for victims of police and Klan violence, and to maintain a medical presence for the black community -- many of whom had never seen a doctor as a result of a segregated system of health care.

Last year, African Americans across the country united with progressive organizations, civil rights, labor and health care activists to pass a national health care reform law that begins to address health care inequities born out of an unequal system of care that often works for the wealthy and healthy, not for the poor and sick. Today, the historic health care legislation that Congress passed is already making a difference for millions of African Americans, who are far more likely to experience health care disparities and die from preventable diseases because of lack of access to secure, affordable, quality care.

On January 19, the U.S. House of Representatives voted on legislation that would repeal the benefits of the Affordable Care Act, simply because opponents of health reform law want to see it fail. Now is not the time to take away the foundation for better care and services that could make an enormous difference in reducing barriers within so many underserved communities. As a family doctor, an African American woman, and Chair of SEIU Healthcare, I see Dr. King's vision for health care equality reborn in the new law.

Taking Strides To Reduce Racial Health Disparities: We Can't Stop Now

Today, just under one in five African Americans are uninsured, compared to only one in eight white Americans who lack health coverage, according to "Health Disparities: A Case for Closing the Gap," a 2009 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. This lack of coverage has real consequences: the death rate for African Americans is two times higher than whites for heart disease, stroke, cancer, influenza and pneumonia, diabetes, and HIV/AIDS.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act moves toward eliminating the glaring disparities in healthcare coverage and access that disproportionately impact communities of color across the U.S. and Territories such as the Virgin Islands. Thanks to the law, insurance companies can no longer deny care to individuals due to a pre-existing condition like hypertension, cancer, or diabetes--diseases that have a firm foothold in our families. Beginning this year, the health reform law will appropriate $11 billion to community health care centers typically located in underserved communities and used by nearly 30 percent of African Americans. The law will also fund programs to support health care professionals who serve communities of color, ultimately enhancing culturally appropriate care.

The law does more for African Americans who have lived with barriers to care that can significantly impact us as we age. As of January 1, 2011, seniors on Medicare can get free medical check-ups. Screenings for deadly diseases like colorectal cancer and preventive services like mammograms and bone mass measurements are now free. And, seniors who couldn't afford their prescriptions and whose drug costs put them in the Medicare Park D "doughnut hole" will now get a 50 percent discount on the price of brand name drugs and additional discounts on generic drugs, lowering out-of-pocket costs for so many of our seniors living on fixed incomes.

For African Americans, the benefits of health care reform cannot come soon enough. No one recognizes this more than our country's physicians like the Committee of Interns and Residents of SEIU Healthcare and the non-profit advocacy group, Doctors for America, who have joined forces to call on members of Congress to support the Affordable Care Act. Like the health care professionals with the Medical Committee for Human Rights who united during Freedom Summer, the physicians of SEIU and Doctors for America often work in communities where barriers to care are all too evident.

As we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the path he began down so many years ago to recognize health care as a human right, we must call upon members of Congress to honor his vision of a health care system that works for everyone. Our members of Congress can do that by embracing that vision as it lives on today in the Affordable Care Act.

Follow Dr. L. Toni Lewis on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ltonil

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