Minorities and Health Care: What's the Real Story?

10/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Francesca Biller Award-Winning Investigative Journalist, Political Satirist, Race, Popular Culture, Cuisine

Ironically, the most thunderous vitriol about health care being spewed at town hall meetings across the country is both raged and waged by those already gainfully insured who can't bare the thought of sharing the pot with the poor and uninsured.

While health care is in need of radical reform for millions of Americans, minorities, and especially Blacks, have historically suffered disproportionately from poor or non-existent access to even the most primitive of medical care.

Grave numbers show that although African-Americans make up only 13.5 percent of the population, when compared to White men, Black men are 2.4 times more likely to die from prostate cancer, 30 percent more likely to die from heart disease; twice as likely to be diagnosed with diabetes and 2.2 times more likely to die from the disease

The data is just as grim and more so in some cases for African-American women when compared to White women with a 34 percent chance of dying from breast cancer, although 10 percent less likely to be diagnosed as many have no access to health care; twice as likely to die from stomach cancer, and 22 times higher to be diagnosed with AIDS with a 20 percent higher rate of death.

At one town hall meeting, a Caucasian woman's rankle involved attacking any aspect of universal health care as "downright un-American and socialist." She said she is "damned near sure" she won't be responsible for picking up the bill for anyone not willing to work hard enough.

At another meeting, an older White male complained that his co-pays have gone up so high that his family had to cancel their annual summer vacation to Hawaii, something he has never been "forced to endure."

Try telling that story to a Black, Hispanic, Native-American or other member of a minority class with more than 100 million suffering from otherwise treatable diseases and premature death.

An African-American colleague laughs bitterly at the prospect that health care might be reformed to any substantive degree. Growing up, his family had no insurance and he remembers missing weeks of school at a time as he suffered from severe asthma they could not afford to treat.

His mother and father died from diabetes and a heart attack in their fifties, respectively, and neither had seen a doctor in more than 20 years.

"I'm pissed off that suddenly this is big news just because Whites are now feeling the pain we have always felt," Carl said. "I guess it took a Black president in order to do something about an accepted part of our reality."

And as any dream of a fair melting pot is being stirred with petulance as is health care reform, the democratic ideals of fairness and equality our country was founded on are being mocked with racism and classicism at its most grotesque and conspicuous.

With obvious political and social transparency, those most desperate are scarcely heard from as the debate roars from the windy plains of Texas to the cool coasts of the West.

This land that too uncommonly boasts a vista of the free and the brave has been landscaped with separate and unequal climates as the generationally uninsured have been disenfranchised and discriminated including a healthy and strong physical stature in society.

While 46 million Americans have no insurance, one assurance that can't be denied is the shocking numbers of non-Whites who become ill and die untimely deaths from otherwise preventable and treatable diseases, costing the country more money in the long run as care becomes reactive rather than proactive.

"These disparities determine how long we live and how healthy our life is," said Thomas A. LaVeist, Ph.D., author of Minority Populations and Health: An Introduction to Health Disparities in the United States.

"Whites live an average of 5-7 years longer than Blacks. African-Americans are more likely than Whites to be victims of homicide and HIV/AIDS. Infant mortality is double for Blacks. It's been that way since statistics have been kept," LaVeist said.

Health statistics are similar for other minorities, although not as severe when compared in most instances to the Black population, especially insofar as death from AIDS and infant mortality rates.

Those opposed to reform defy ignorance while ignoring that although the United States spends more on health care than any industrialized country; it ranks last in the quality of health among 191 member nations, according to the World Health Organization.

When rating a country's overall quality of health care, one of the most significant indicators of the population's health is the infant mortality death rate, and numbers are particularly grave for minority infants in the U.S.

For African-American babies, the death rate is 2.3 times that of white infants, with four times likely to die from low birth weight. The data is most severe for Native-Americans, with the infant mortality rate topping whites by 48 percent.

A stark reality remains that because health insurance is largely employer-based in this country with minorities suffering most from unemployment, health care has perpetually been poor or nil.

Sobering statistics reveal that although Blacks only make up only 13.5 percent of the civilian "non-institutionalized" population, (a relevant note as Blacks made up 41 percent of the nation's 2 million prison inmates) they are 60 percent more likely to die from a stroke than Whites, and if they survive, they are more likely to become disabled.

The death of Senator Ted Kennedy, who called it his life's work to fight for equal and just health care as a right for all Americans, perhaps his passing will at the very least bring the true urgency to reform health care to the immediate front and center, with the actual passage of equitable health care a right for all Americans, rich or poor, healthy or sick, white or minority.

President Obama said, "I suffer no illusions that this will be an easy process. It will be hard. But I also know that nearly a century after Teddy Roosevelt first called for reform, the cost of our health care has weighed down our economy and the conscience of our nation long enough. So let there be no doubt: health care reform cannot wait, it must not wait, and it will not wait another year."

It is evident with the petulance prattled and screeched vociferously, loud and clear across the rural, urban and multicultural highways that many Americans want rapaciously to keep what they have above all human decency and compassion, literally leaving the have-nots left out in the cold to fend for their right to the pursuit of happiness, as stated in the Declaration of Independence.

The document also includes the following declaration: "That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

Martin Luther King's words ring timeless and haunting when he said, "An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity."

Let's just hope that more individuals choose to truly start living as they help others to realize the dream of a healthy, just and humane life as well, as defined by a country of people whose lives literally hang in the balance of both power and political injustice.