Human Rights

The Color of Health Care

Bush's State of the Union proposal to privatize healthcare would, if enacted, only worsen racial disparities.
President Bush's healthcare privatization plan will only worsen glaring disparities affecting communities of color, according to advocates and researchers who argue that public solutions are both possible and necessary to close the racial and economic gap in the nation's deepening health crisis.

People of color are at significantly higher risk to suffer from cancer, asthma, mortality among adults and infants and diabetes, among other diseases. Infant mortality rates are nearly two times higher among African-American infants; and Latinos, African Americans and Native Americans/Alaska Natives are at least three times as likely as whites to receive late or no prenatal care, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Compounding these health disparities, Census data shows that African Americans are twice as likely as whites to be uninsured, and Latinos are three times more likely. Legislators and advocates fear that these numbers would rapidly increase under Bush's proposed strategy to promote private health insurance via tax credits.

"We need to focus on providing access to quality healthcare coverage to everyone, not on band-aid solutions like health savings accounts," said California Assemblymember Wilma Chan, who introduced a bill in 2005 to provide healthcare to over 1 million uninsured children in California. Vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Health Access for Kids Bill will be reintroduced in the 2006 legislative session.

"I was shocked that there was no mention of the problems plaguing the new Medicare drug benefit program or ways to fix it. Thousands of seniors, including many poor older adults, are facing life-threatening situations because they cannot get their medications," said Chan, who chairs the Assembly Health Committee. "If anything, these problems will exacerbate racial and economic health disparities rather than closing the gap."

Tammy Johnson, director of Race and Public Policy, a research and advocacy program based in Oakland that works to address racial inequities through policy strategies, agrees that privatization will set back the struggle for equitable access to healthcare in the U.S.

"These policies will undermine the work of legislators and advocates who have been working toward equal access in healthcare. We want to see policies that ensure high quality care for all Americans, not just the privileged few," Johnson said.

Small business owners, those who Bush claims will benefit from the tax credits, are also skeptical of its likely rewards.

"It's simply not going to work," said Diana Hess, a small business owner interviewed by the Idaho Community Action Network, which recently surveyed 100 small businesses in Preston, ID. "The other businesses in my community feel that tax credits just aren't enough. The costs are too high. What we really need from the President is a public insurance program that all owners and their employees can access for quality care."

According to a 2005 report by the Applied Research Center and the Northwest Federation of Community Organizations, which studied solutions to race-based health disparities, local governments and community organizations have spearheaded innovative ways to address health issues. Santa Clara County, California launched a "Children's Health Initiative" that reduced the number of uninsured children in the county by 62 percent, most of whom are Latino or Asian, in just one year.

"There are successful public alternatives that can begin to erode the system of inequities that deny too many people of color adequate access to healthcare in this country," said Rinku Sen, communications director of the Applied Research Center.

Despite the fact that advocates have been fighting to keep racial and economic disparities at the forefront of discussions of equitable healthcare solutions in recent years, the Bush administration has refused to acknowledge them. "As the entire nation struggles, the President would like us to forget that health disparities continue to run along the color line, demanding a solution that looks toward the margins," Sen added. "President Bush should develop solutions that work for all Americans, not just the wealthy and white. Private solutions aggravate disparities. Public solutions have eliminated them."

Megan Izen is a writing fellow with ColorLines magazine.
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