By SHARAHN D. BOYKIN, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - Despite progress in closing the health care gap between minorities and whites, a legislative panel says millions of dollars is needed to ensure better access and better quality health care in minority communities.
"We want to be staffed and funded and will hold the administration accountable," said Delegate Joanne C. Benson, D-Prince George's, a member of a House of Delegates committee that monitors minority health disparities.
The committee has a two pronged approach to funding an Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities. Delegate Shirley Nathan-Pulliam, D-Baltimore County, plans to draft a bill requesting $2.6 million, in hopes of getting at least $1 million.
If the governor's health care access bill goes through, the office could inherit the $10 million earmarked for minority health, according to Nathan-Pulliam.
The Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities was established by the legislature in 2004. The office has not received funds directly from the state budget, but instead stays afloat with money that was redirected from other programs, said Nathan-Pulliam.
Part of the committee's strategy is to emulate Montgomery County, which has narrower health disparity gap, said Delegate Nicholaus R. Kipke R-Anne Arundel.
Evidence of progress in 2004 noted in the report showed that relatively fewer blacks than whites now die of two of the 15 leading causes of death - chronic lung disease and chronic liver disease. However, other disparities persist, such as HIV/AIDS, diabetes and kidney disease.
Subcommittee members say other issues need to be addressed to further close the gap. They said disparities could be reduced through more health care outreach and spending in the communities, which is where Nathan-Pulliam said the money would be spent.
"I am deeply troubled by the way the resources, communication and information are made available," Benson said. "They need to do a better job of reaching out to communities, churches and organizations." Some communities, such as Baltimore, have the benefits of being surrounded by several medical facilities, Benson added.
Even though access to health care is priority, quality of care is a major issue as well, Nathan-Pulliam added.
"I'm going to make sure that the health disparity issues stay on the governor's radar screen," she said. "Having access does not equate to quality."
Some health care experts and legislators attribute part of the health care quality disparities to communication between doctors and patients - often due to language and cultural differences.
To understand patients, Nathan-Pulliam said, doctors must be "clinically culturally competent." That is, doctors and health care professionals need training in cultural literacy and on cultural issues, she said. They need to understand their patients and their needs.
A lack of minority doctors is another factor that adds to the disparities.
"We have doctors who deal with African-Americans who don't know how to deal with our culture," Benson said.