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New Public-Private Initiative Aims to Fight Racial Disparities in Health Care

By Emily P. Walker, CQ Staff

February 11, 2008 -- The Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Minority Health and the National Business Group on Health on Monday announced a two-year, $300,000 initiative that would aim to combat racial and ethnic disparities among minorities receiving employer-sponsored health care.

The National Business Group on Health (NBGH) is a nonprofit organization that represents large employers' perspective on national health issues.

"Having coverage doesn't solve the problem" of minorities receiving lower-quality care and having worse outcomes than whites, said Helen Darling, president of NBGH.

Darling cited a 1999 Kaiser Family Foundation survey that found more than 35 percent of blacks and Latinos reported that they or someone they know was treated unfairly when getting medical care because of race. Fifteen percent of whites reported the same experience.

Ron Davis, the president of the American Medical Association (AMA), said that while access to care, language barriers, and other cultural barriers may hinder minority access to quality medical care, "social injustices" taking place in the medical setting are also skewing minority health outcomes.

He referenced a paper published recently in the Journal of the American Medical Association that said whites who visit the emergency room with pain are more likely to be prescribed an opiate—such as Tylenol with codeine—than their black counterparts.

The disparity suggests a prejudice among some physicians that black patients are more likely to exhibit "drug-seeking behavior," Davis said.

Since large employers provide care for two out of three Americans with health insurance, they are in a position to demand quality care for employees of all races and ethnicities, Darling said. In addition, improving health care quality across the board could reduce the time an employee spends away from work.

Employers pay an average of $9,300 per employee for health care costs, and most assume that cost provides equal coverage for all employees, regardless of race, Darling said.

"Most employers would be dismayed to learn that while their contribution is equal, the care is not," Darling said.

The partnership between the Office of Minority Health (OMH) and NBGH expands on the National Partnership for Action, a broader effort to end health disparities by Health and Human Services (HHS) and the OMH.

The new, employer-focused addition to the effort aims to inform employers of disparities in health care and give them action plans to improve the situation—such as guiding large employers toward plans that have ethnically representative health care providers, or providing on-site care for populations that are unlikely to visit a doctor.

"It's no longer enough to provide the same benefits and hope everything works out," Darling said.

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