On March 23rd, after the historic vote in the U.S. House of Representatives on March 21st and earlier action by the Senate, President Barack Obama signed into law a sweeping reform of America’s health care system. Immediately, American children no longer face the specter of being denied health insurance due to a pre-existing condition, a protection that will be extended to all Americans by 2014. In addition, this legislation curbs runaway, unregulated increases in premiums and prohibits arbitrary caps on coverage. Even more significantly, over the next four years, 32 million of our fellow citizens will gain access to a system that has shut them out. This measure will significantly reverse the situation of African Americans who are twice as likely to be among the uninsured as whites. Longtime supporter of the Lawyers’ Committee and champion for health care reform, the late Senator Edward Kennedy would be enormously proud.
The lack of access to affordable, quality health care has severely impacted the minority community. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has identified six areas in which racial and ethnic minorities experience serious disparities in health access and outcomes: infant mortality, cancer screening and management, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, HIV infection/AIDS and immunizations.
For the 20 percent of African Americans who lack health care insurance this has meant delayed diagnosis and disparate treatment of serious illness such as asthma, diabetes and cancer. It is scandalous that in 2010 in the United States the infant mortality rate for African Americans is more than twice that of whites. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s report Race, Ethnicity & Medical Care, the death rate for African Americans from heart disease is one third higher than whites. African Americans also have a higher death rate from cancer than any other racial or ethnic group.
As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once noted, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”
Unfortunately, the debate over this measure was bitter, to the point of racial epithets being hurled at African American Members of Congress as they entered the United States Capitol to vote. Nevertheless, under the steadfast leadership of President Obama, our nation has taken an important step toward correcting this injustice.
Barbara R. Arnwine, Executive Director