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Advocates Say Health Law Will Help Close Health Disparity Gap

By Melissa Attias, CQ Staff

January 20, 2012 -- The health care overhaul can play a key role in addressing health disparities among racial and ethnic groups, advocates told supporters of the law last week.

While infant mortality, obesity and diabetes rates still show significant inequities among different communities, speakers at Families USA's 17th annual conference said implementation of the law is an opportunity to help close those gaps.

"Health care reform won't end health disparities, but the law does provide us a foundation to build on and to move the conversation forward," said Janet Murguia, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights organization.

Murguia said the coverage options created under the law (PL 111-148, PL 111-152) are "vital" to tackling disparities, particularly in the Latino community. She praised the expansion in Medicaid for low-income families and the private insurance marketplace set up by the law, but urged supporters not to treat health equity as a side issue as implementation progresses.

"Health care reform implementation without intentional and deliberate action on disparities only serves to widen the gaps in health," she said. "On the up side, addressing the needs of these communities could potentially strengthen support for reform, and broad reforms, as it faces challenges in the future."

David Satcher, who served as surgeon general under President Bill Clinton, and L. Toni Lewis, chairwoman of SEIU's health care division, also emphasized the importance of education in counteracting attacks on the health care law. Satcher said how little people know about the overhaul is "amazing" and cautioned that misinformation could have a real impact.

"People distort what it is, what it says," said Satcher, who currently serves as director of the Satcher Health Leadership Institute at Morehouse School of Medicine. "If we're not careful, you know, that distortion is going to end up with us right back where we were, trying to figure out how people are going to get health care."

While advancements in the health care system are critical, Satcher also highlighted the link between health outcomes and social conditions, particularly poverty.

"The fact of the matter is that there are a lot of people who live in conditions that make it very difficult for them to get out in the morning and be physically active. It's not safe. And there are others who live in communities where there are no grocery stores and fresh fruits and vegetables that are affordable, or none at all," he said. "We have to deal with the social conditions that also surround these problems."

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