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Community Voices: Bridging the gap of racial inequality

Donna Latson Gittens

The White House’s Policy in Action Leadership Conference last month was an opportunity to hear from the Obama adminsitration about their efforts to close the racial disparities in education and job training, business development, foreclosures and health.

Health disparities are of particular interest to me personally and professionally. My family lives in Codman Square close to one of the most innovative health centers in Boston.

The Codman Square Health Center has been providing quality preventive care for decades as have community health centers across the Commonwealth. With universal health care coverage in our state, families no longer have to go to an emergency room for non-urgent care but now have access to preventive, overall care at their neighborhood health center.

Professionally, I have seen the value of promoting health care through social marketing campaigns that move target populations toward screenings for colon and breast cancer and away from tobacco use.

As I listened to the discussions at the conference I was reminded of a specific quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In 1966, King said, “Of all the forms of inequity, injustice in healthcare is the most shocking and inhumane.” I hoped I would learn that this administration was well on its way to contributing to the elimination of the barriers African Americans and other minorities have faced attaining quality, accessible and prevention-based health care.

At the conference cabinet members U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder,  U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and others took part in a panel discussion on domestic policies and African Americans.  

The administration is initiating and supporting policies in healthcare that look at communities as a whole when planning for health care coverage.

The strategy calls for integrating nutrition education through the Department of Agriculture, the inclusion of the Justice Department when looking at mental health issues and input from the Environmental Protection Agency on clean air assessments.   

What gave credence to the importance the White House placed on the gathering was an address by President Barack Obama.

The president reminded the audience of African American leaders of the recently released report detailing how the economic downturn has been particularly challenging for African Americans.

He also pointed to the actions taken by his administration to lessen the severity of the crisis for millions of people and the long term strategies to rebuild opportunities for middle-class jobs with health benefits. Obama further talked about the improvements in funding for preventive health care, support for community health centers and actions that will lead to moving families who are without access to healthcare into a position where quality care is available to them.

The passage of Obama’s The Affordable Care Act will, in 2014, ensure that all Americans enjoy the security of health insurance coverage that we in Massachusetts have experienced in recent years.

According to the US Census Bureau, 16 percent of non-elderly Americans, or 49.9 million people, were without coverage in 2010. More than 20 percent of African Americans were without coverage compared to 12 percent of non-Hispanic whites.

In Massachusetts, we have many things for which we should be grateful. Our economy is weathering the economic downturn better than most, and we have health coverage. Our Commonwealth is a model for other states to follow.  It is certain, however, that there is much more that we can do to understand the barriers that still exist to quality care in all of our communities.

The conference afforded attendees the opportunity to share their personal and professional experience with senior decision and policy makers in the Obama administration and to collaborate with leaders from across the country.

During the breakout session focused on prevention and health disparities we were asked to come up with recommendations for the administration by Obama urged us to “… do some brainstorming. We want your input. We want your ideas.”

Our discussion resulted in recommendations including: promoting the involvement of young African American as healthcare ambassadors; support for physicians of color working in our poorest communities; advancement and strategic outreach planning and implementation of programs within the US Office of Minority Health; and our support for the continued cross-agency approach to solving some our critical issues in health, housing and the environment.

That was not the end of the process of public engagement with the White House. The Office of Public Engagement will create a report based on our input.  I look forward to seeing just how much importance the White House places on hearing from real Americans and what policies or programs will see the light of day in the future.

Donna Latson Gittens is CEO and founder of causemedia, inc.