Editor's Notebook: Putting minority health into health reform

Ask the average American on the street what President Barack Obama’s health care reform plan is all about and he or she will probably start talking about insurance—and more specifically, the controversial proposal known as the “public health insurance option.” After all, everyone else is talking about it, from conservative pundits who have somehow become convinced that a government-sponsored insurance option would eliminate the private health coverage many Americans currently have (gee, don’t they know what the word “option” means?) to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who has been spending a lot of time trying to explain that the goal is not to take anyone’s insurance away but to provide insurance to those who don’t have it in the first place.

There’s no denying that changing the current health insurance system is an important part of the health care reform our nation urgently needs, especially when you consider that 86.7 million people—or one out of every three Americans under age 65—was uninsured for some or all of the years 2007-2008. But despite all the media debate that’s been buzzing around like a swarm of July mosquitoes, I’m hearing surprisingly little discussion about health care reform in a broader sense—i.e. improving the way medical care is delivered, and increasing the quality and effectiveness of care. And there seems to be even less conversation about the need to fix one of the most critical of all our national health care problems: the persistent gap in health outcomes between Americans of color and their white counterparts.

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Fortunately, there are actually quite a few people who do want to bring the issue of minority health disparities to the health reform table. And that includes one guy whose opinions really count: President Obama himself. On the White House’s official health care reform Web site a report called “Health Disparities: A Case for Closing the Gap” concludes with these powerful words: “The [minority health care disparities] highlighted in this report demonstrate the need for reform. Meaningful reform must invest in prevention and wellness and ensure that all Americans have access to high-quality, affordable care. We can no longer afford to tolerate disparities in health.”

And the president is backing up those words with action. On June 9, while the self-appointed health reform critics were busy bloviating about how creating a public health coverage plan for millions of uninsured Americans who desperately need it—including a disproportionate amount of minority Americans—would amount to “socialism” or a “government takeover,” the White House convened a roundtable discussion on the provisions needed in health reform to improve the health of African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans, Native Americans and other vulnerable populations.

Here’s someone else who wants to talk about the need to make minority health a priority in the health reform package: roundtable participant Fredette West, chair of the Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities Coalition (REHDC) and director of the African American Health Alliance (AAHA). And since she can express herself more eloquently than I can, I’ll turn the rest of this editorial over to her.

“Health reform is integral to the elimination of racial and ethnic health disparities, and the elimination of these disparities is integral to effective and affordable health reform,” West says. “This won’t just happen; vulnerable communities must speak up and speak out to make sure that health reform responds to their respective community needs.”

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How can you, as nurses, get involved in these efforts? Again, I’ll let West have the last word. “Contact the president and your Congressional representatives in the House and Senate and ask them to include minority health disparities provisions in health reform,” she urges. “Make a call; write a letter; send an email. Call the White House at (202) 456-1414 or (202) 456- 1111, and the Congress at (202) 225-3121.

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