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Blog: Let Us Not Give Up on the Commitment to Close the Health Disparity Gap


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Closing the intractable health disparity gap among Americans has eluded health care professionals and policymakers for generations. Although achieving health equality is a challenge, we cannot give up. It is imperative that we continue to pursue solutions.

For years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has tracked health inequality, which is based on socio-economic, racial and ethnic differences.

In the CDC's 2011 Health Disparities and Inequalities Report, the agency states that rates of preventable hospitalizations increase as income decreases. Using data from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, the CDC says eliminating these income-based disparities would prevent approximately 1 million hospitalizations and save $6.7 billion in health care costs.

A comparative study from the CDC based on race and ethnicity is equally disturbing. For example, African American and Native American adults are two times more likely than White adults to have a diagnosis of diabetes. And Hispanics are 1.6 times more likely to die of diabetes than non-Hispanic Whites.

The study also found that even though breast cancer is diagnosed 10 percent less frequently in African American women than in White women, Black women are 34 percent more likely to die of the disease.

Cervical cancer is another disease--among many others--where one also finds racial and ethnic disparities. Hispanic women are twice as likely as non-Hispanic White women to have a diagnosis of cervical cancer. Vietnamese Americans have the highest rates of cervical cancer--five times higher than the rates among non-Hispanic White women.

I applaud the CDC's dedicated efforts toward eliminating these unacceptable health disparities through its Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health (REACH) initiative. This CDC program uses an innovative approach to health equality, which has achieved notable successes in New York City and other communities throughout our nation.

Those successes encouraged me to spearhead an effort to support REACH and prevent budget cuts to the initiative that would reverse the gains. When CDC Director Thomas R. Frieden was told that he must eliminate $750 million from the center's budget, I drafted a letter that more than three dozen of my colleague co-signed, advocating for REACH.

Over the years, I have also been a congressional leader in the campaign to end health inequality. For example, I am the Democratic lead with my Republican colleague Paul Broun of Georgia in submitting legislation to coordinate efforts to combat prostate cancer. H.R.2159, the Prostate Research, Outreach, Screening, Testing, Access, and Treatment Effectiveness (or PROSTATE) Act of 2011, will improve research and treatment for this disease.

Prostate cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death among men. African Americans are 60 percent more likely to contract the disease and 2.5 times more likely to die from the disease as are White men. The PROSTATE Act will also improve the health outcomes of underserved rural men who have a higher mortality rate from prostate cancer compared to their urban counterparts.

Without reservation, I firmly believe that we could eliminate health inequality in America. It will take a concerted effort that combines the resources of government and individuals doing their part to live a healthy lifestyle.

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