Successful national health care reform must address access, quality and affordability issues in a comprehensive approach. Providing health care for all must also recognize and address health disparities that exist among minority populations.
According to the Children's Defense Fund, for example, black children in the United States are five times more likely to die from asthma than their white peers. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than half of all uninsured Americans are racial minorities.
A study by the Mount Sinai School of Medicine recently found that black women are more likely to have low birth weight babies, a condition linked to infant mortality.
A study by the Commonwealth Fund discovered that half of all black Americans suffer from a chronic illness or disability, the highest rate among all racial groups. Meanwhile, the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found that blacks have a 30 percent higher death rate than whites.
Indeed, in 2006 U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher concluded that about 84,000 deaths every year could be prevented if gaps in mortality between blacks and whites were eliminated.
There are numerous causes for these disparities, but one major factor is a lack of access to appropriate medical care among minorities. Public hospitals, for instance, admit more minority patients than whites for conditions that could have been treated much earlier by a primary care physician.
This situation places millions at risk and severely strains our nation's medical resources.
That's why comprehensive health care reform needs to include an effort to give minority patients access to primary care. This means establishing more primary care facilities in minority communities so that patients in those communities can address health problems early, before they precipitate into more serious conditions.
But it can't stop there. The profound differences between white and minority medical outcomes can also be linked to a lack of cultural competency among health care professionals. Many in the medical community don't possess the necessary knowledge of various minority cultures that is needed to properly diagnose, treat, and communicate with minority patients.
It's for this reason that the medical profession needs to welcome more minorities into its ranks. From physicians, to nurse practitioners, and hospital administrators, the more diverse the health care community is, the better-equipped it will be to deal with the unique challenges that minorities face in staying healthy.
But it's important to note that many of these challenges aren't race-specific. This is why efforts to decrease health care disparities should just be a part of a much more comprehensive reform plan that provides all Americans with broader access to affordable, high-quality health care.
The Pharmaceutical Industry Labor-Management Association, an organization comprised of organized labor and America's pharmaceutical companies, is currently working to bring attention to this important issue. I am especially encouraged by the pharmaceutical industry's substantial commitment to reduce the cost of brand name drugs for seniors under the coverage gap in Medicare Part D. This contribution will both help seniors and spur passage of comprehensive national health reform.
In a country founded on equality, there shouldn't be such a great divide in access to quality health care and health outcomes. As lawmakers move forward on health reform for all Americans, I hope they recognize -- and address -- this problem.
Clayola Brown is the President of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, the senior constituency Group of the AFL-CIO, representing African-American trade unionists.