DeParle, Sebelius: Time To Tackle Health Care Disparities

With an overhaul of the nation’s health care system dominating the Washington agenda, the time is now to tackle ethnic, economic and gender disparities in health care, according to two of the Obama adminstration’s top health officials.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and White House Health Czar Nancy Ann DeParle held a forum Tuesday with two dozen stakeholders to hear ideas on how America should reform glaring disparities in the health care of minorities in America.

“We know that this is a health issue, and it’s also a civil rights issue,” DeParle said. 

An HHS report, also released Tuesday, says that health care disparities persist as low-income Americans and racial and ethnic minorities continue to have higher incidences of disease, fewer treatment options and less access to care. According to Sebelius, the study found that 40 percent of low-income Americans don’t have health insurance and that one-third of the uninsured have a chronic disease. In addition, minorities suffer more – for instance, 48 percent of black Americans suffer from a chronic illness compared to 39 percent of all Americans, she said, quoting the study.

Some minority lawmakers warned this week that a reform bill that doesn’t address disparities would face a fight from them, The Associated Press reports. DeParle said Tuesday afternoon that President Obama is committed to reform health care this year that would include eliminating those disparities, though she wasn’t specific on how that would be done.

The challenge in health reform lies not just in reshaping the system but also in shining a spotlight on what’s happening across America to make sure minorities get improved delivery of care, Sebelius said.

“It’s unsustainable, unacceptable and unaffordable,” she said. Solving the disparity question is one of “lots of building blocks of a health system that needs transformation.”

Among the ideas bandied about from the two dozen stakeholder groups, ranging from the National Hispanic Medical Association and the NAACP to the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities Coalition, were improving access to specialty care for minorities and making sure that doctors understand the patients they’re dealing with culturally, economically and gender-specifically.