Panelists Call on Lawmakers To Address Racial Health Disparities
Panelists at a forum on Monday discussed the lack of legislation and policies aimed at reducing racial and ethnic disparities in health care, CQ HealthBeat reports. Experts speaking at the forum, which was sponsored by the Alliance for Health Reform and the Commonwealth Fund, said that both federal and state lawmakers can do much to address disparities but acknowledged that the legislative response needed goes beyond coverage expansions and has been slow to develop, according to CQ HealthBeat.
Brian Smedley, research director for The Opportunity Agenda and co-author of a study to examine states' efforts to stop or reduce disparities, said that further initiatives that encourage diversity among health care professionals and simplify enrollment procedures for subsidized health programs could spur increased participation among minorities. According to Smedley's study, "While people of color make up just one-third of the U.S. population, they comprise over half of the nation's 47 million uninsured individuals," but, "even when uninsured, minority and low-income individuals are less likely to access health care as out-of-pocket costs rise and more likely than are native-born white Americans to face cultural and linguistic barriers to care."
Caya Lewis, a Democratic staffer for the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said many lawmakers are not aware of the types of disparities or do not believe disparities exist. Lewis noted that the last disparities bill (PL 106-525) was signed into law in 2000. Bipartisan disparities legislation (S 1576) co-sponsored by Senate HELP Committee Chair Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) would increase training efforts and set standards for federal health care initiatives that gather data related to race and ethnicity and provide financial aid to community programs that address or seek to curb disparities in health care for minorities.
Lewis said that bipartisan efforts are essential for the passage of such disparities legislation, adding, "One of the clear things we can do at the federal level is improve the training of minority health professionals." Proponents of the measure hope to get it through the Senate this year, CQ HealthBeat reports.
Becky Shipp, a Republican staffer for the Senate Finance Committee, said that the issue of disparities is a real one and that health care expansion programs such as SCHIP should not be the only options for change. Shipp added that higher income eligibility thresholds could have unintended consequences, such as crowding out private health care coverage. Schipp said that she was speaking for herself, adding that this "is the season for health reform" because the current system is "unsustainable" (Reichard, CQ HealthBeat, 5/12).
A webcast of the forum is available online at kaisernetwork.org.