By JESSICA HARPER
WASHINGTON (April 9, 2011) Maryland is one of a handful of states where racial minorities are quickly emerging as a majority, census numbers show, a trend that is putting a spotlight on long-standing health care access gaps between whites and people of color.
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., and other officials assembled at the National Press Club Friday to celebrate the launch of two Department of Health and Human Services plans aimed at closing those holes.
Cardin applauded HHS' disparity reduction efforts, saying their work couldn't be timelier.
"When you look at the African-American asthma rate, it's much higher than the white population's rate or when you look at the Asian Pacific Islanders' liver cancer rate, it's three times the rate of the population at large," said Cardin. "For too long, we've seen the minority community have less access, less treatment and less research."
Cardin praised Congress' passage of the Affordable Care Act, the health care reform law passed last March that he helped author. The senator wrote a provision to create Offices of Minority Health in six agencies of HHS and to transform the National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities into one of the National Institutes of Health.
He encouraged Congress and others to not be so short-sighted in ensuring that these plans see fruition.
"We want to make sure that our commitment doesn't depend upon one president or one secretary," said Cardin, "and that this is a permanent commitment to deal with this problem."
The new plans include the HHS Action Plan to Reduce Health Disparities and the National Stakeholder Strategy for Achieving Health Equity; both are products of the National Partnership for Action and aim to eliminate health disparities between whites and ethnic and racial minorities.
The Action Plan to Reduce Health Disparities highlights goals and actions the department will take to lessen health gaps among racial and ethnic minorities. Graham talked briefly about that plan, but the bulk of Friday's conference focused on the National Stakeholder Strategy for Achieving Health Equity.
The equity plan urges the dispersal of additional resources to community health centers to help underserved populations; incentives for adopting electronic health records for minority communities; connection of people to care through community health workers; and creation of an online registry of interpreters that doctors and hospitals can use.
Despite being one of the wealthiest states in the nation, Maryland ranks 39th in infant mortality with the highest numbers registering among black Americans, Cardin said. This is something he wants to see change.
"I am optimistic that we are going to achieve these goals," he said, "because of the people in this room...and their commitment."
Dr. Howard Koh, assistant secretary for health, and Garth N. Graham, deputy assistant secretary for minority health also attended the conference.
Koh said his personal experiences govern his feelings on the issue.
"I have seen far too many whose poor health was linked to social or economic disadvantage," he said. "We know that the health of the individual is almost inseparable from the health of the larger community. We know the health of every community determines the overall health of our nation."
Koh said health depends on more than what happens in doctors' offices; it's affected by social determinates—where people work, labor, learn, play and pray.
"While medical advances have improved the lives of many of us, the health and well-being of all people will not improve until disparities and inequities in health are eliminated," Koh said.
All people deserve to reach their fullest potential for health, he said, and the National Stakeholder Strategy for Achieving Health Equity is the best way to accomplish this goal.
In 2008, the percentage of hospice patients whose families reported that they did not receive the right amount of medication for pain was significantly higher for Hispanics, blacks and American Indians and Alaskan natives than for whites, according to the plan. And between 2005 and 2007, Hispanic, American Indians and Alaskan native adult patients with heart failure were less likely than whites to receive complete, written discharge instructions.
The U.S. population is steadily growing more diverse, with the U.S. Census predicting a minority-majority populous by 2042, if not earlier. As this diversity continues to unfold, health disparity plans like the ones unveiled today are expected to become increasingly relevant.
The HHS Office of Minority Health has created new web pages to offer information and tools for organizations and individuals working to reduce health care disparities.
For more information about the plans and the National Partnership for Action, visit: www.minorityhealth.hhs.gov/npa. For more information about health disparities and the Affordable Care Act, visit: www.healthcare.gov/law/infoucs/disparities.