March 26, 2004

Disparities in Health Care a Silent Killer

Hispanic Voters Long to Hear National Candidates Call for Equitable Care

By Dr. Elena Rios

WASHINGTON – In this election year, both major political parties are actively courting the nation’s fast-growing Hispanic population.

There’s even political talk of a Hispanic vice president and what a national ticket with the nation’s largest ethnic minority might bring.

The spotlight on Hispanics extends even to the White House. When President Vic-ente Fox of neighboring Mexico visited him at his ranch in Crawford, TX, President Bush took the opportunity to signal his willingness to exempt Mexicans who enter the United States to work from new requirements that foreign visitors be fingerprinted and photographed.

There’s no denying that Hispanics – from voters to politicians to entertainers such as Jennifer Lopez and Christina Aguilera – are attracting the nation’s attention. If only more health-care policymakers and national leaders would wake up to our existence and address the problems facing our community. The thing is, no one seems to be noticing that Hispanics are dying faster than we should be.

First, we’re dying on the job. From 1992 to 2001, more than 6,800 Hispanics – many of them Mexican immigrants in construction work – died while trying to earn a living, according to studies. In that industry alone during that period, the workplace fatality rate for Hispanics was a staggering 15.1 percent – while there was a 15.4 percent decrease for all other workers

Second, we’re dying of disease. In 2001, one in six heart disease deaths in the United States occurred in people younger than 65. This killer affected Hispanics and other minorities far worse – contributing to nearly one in four premature deaths among Hispanics.

Why is the American Dream killing us? Because communities of color are paying the price for bias and stereotyping.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, minorities receive less care and less high-quality care than whites. Various studies have shown that even among people with the same disease and socioeconomic status, minorities are less likely to be diagnosed properly and are more likely to receive sub-optimal care.

Those racial and ethnic disparities exist in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer, AIDS, heart disease, diabetes, mental disorders, among others.

Health care in this nation has become a luxury – when it should be a right. Many working Americans – especially those in service industries and construction – lack health insurance and can’t afford to go to clinics and hospitals, much less get preventive care.

And if they have access to health care professionals, language and cultural barriers prevent them from getting quality care. There is a shortage of Hispanic doctors, nurses, dentists and other health professionals to treat this population even as the hue of the nation changes. In addition, there aren’t enough Spanish translators to help patients and doctors communicate effectively.

Those disparities are contributing to a crisis among society’s most vulnerable members – children. Diabetes is one of the most common chronic diseases in children and adolescents.

Each year, more than 13,000 young people are diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes – a problem more often seen in middle-age adults – is becoming a sizeable and growing problem among children and adolescents. What is more worrisome is that Latino children don’t get the same medical attention and quality health care as their white counterparts, thus jeopardizing their future and the nation’s.

Hispanics are not only growing in numbers but also in size. The number of adolescents age 6 to 19 who are overweight has increased 48 percent from 1988-94, to 1999-2000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In comparison, the number of Mexican boys and girls who are overweight increased by 95 percent and 45 percent respectively.

That is not a good prognosis for a nation whose growing girth will soon overtake cigarette smoking as the leading cause of preventable deaths, even rivaling the number of annual deaths from cancer, according to a recent report by federal health officials. Overweight and obese people are much more likely to develop many deadly health problems, including diabetes, heart disease and cancer – thus compounding the obstacles Hispanics already face.

Some Republican and Democratic leaders are taking notice and realize that the growing cost of health care in our society can be decreased substantially if the nation targets its resources to remedy this nonpartisan problem. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) have introduced the “Closing the Health Care Gap Act” and Sen. Tom Daschle (D-ND) and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) have introduced the “Healthcare Equality and Accountability Act” that would improve access to health care services. We should all sign on to this road map for a more egalitarian system.

We as a nation can no longer afford the luxury of discrimination – because disease and illness do not discriminate. The costs are too great, both in dollars and in lost human potential. It’s time to eliminate inequities and make health care accessible to all Americans, regardless of race and ethnicity. That’s a winning message Hispanic voters can agree on.

Dr. Elena Rios is president of the National Hispanic Medical Association, a nonprofit organization representing Hispanic physicians in the United States. Readers may write her at NHMA, 1411 K St. NW, Suite 1100, Washington, DC 20005.

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