BY: KATHERINE GAN, SENIOR CONTRIBUTOR
The divide between rich and poor, black and white, urban and rural, just to name a few, has grown drastically in the past decade. By analyzing healthcare specifically, it is clear that there is still much room for improvement in order to ensure equitable treatment and access.
The Affordable Care Act is notable for boosting health insurance coverage and cutting the uninsured rate nearly in half since its inception. Many have argued that this policy has decreased racial disparities in healthcare, as “the rates of uninsured African Americans and Latinos reduced by 7 percent compared to 3 percent for whites.” Despite these advances, many minority and low income Americans still face difficulties in achieving equal healthcare. Since a 2012 Supreme Court decision allows states to opt out of expanding Medicaid, many states have chosen to not expand the program, contributing to higher costs for many average Americans. Yet, even in states that have expanded Medicaid, many low income citizens are forced to choose between food on the table and medication.
The life expectancy gap for low wage and high wage earners has only exacerbated in the past few years. For women born in 1950, the bottom 10 percent of earners will live 13 years less than the top 10 percent of earners. For men, the gap between the two groups is 14 years. The researchers behind this study give several warrants for their results. The first is that smoking, which has diminished amongst the rich and educated, has become more prevalent amongst lower income Americans. In addition, there is a link between poverty and obesity. In fact, University of Michigan researchers find that “for every 1 percent increase in low-income status there was a 1.17 percent increase in rates of overweight and obese students”. This is because low income communities often are in food deserts, lacking nutritious supermarkets or healthy food options. In addition, healthy foods, like fresh fruits and vegetables, are far more expensive than unhealthy foods. Accordingly, many families choose the latter rather than former, contributing to unhealthy weight gain in low income communities. Furthermore, while poor Americans have less access to good health care options, black and latino communities have been particularly affected, as societal gains have not transcribed to those racial groups.
Diseases and illnesses that have been mostly eradicated in the United States have persisted in minority communities. For instance, rates of AIDS have been on the decline in the US for years but rates are increasing for black and Hispanic men that have sex with men, rising 22 and 24 percent (in the last 10 years), respectively. A reason for this may be the stigma associated with seeking help and admitting to a provider that they were having intimate relations with someone of the same sex. Moreover, this trend of racial disparities and disease rates is present even from a young age. While asthma has declined since 2013, it continues to rise among black children, with 14 percent of black children having asthma, compared to only 8 percent of white children. In addition, there is a clear difference in treatment for deadly diseases. For instance, the risk of dying from breast cancer for black women is 50% higher than that for white women. The main reason for this is a lack of screening opportunities for low income and minority Americans. In fact, a study published in the American Heart Association Journal found that if blacks and whites were to receive equitable health care, the health differences between the two would diminish. The study was based on the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is predicated on the concept of equal care for all. The Department has managed to, on average, reduce the likelihood of heart disease for blacks by 37%, a stunning achievement. Notable improvements like those enacted in the Department of Veterans Affairs should be mimicked around the country.
For simple principles of justice and equality, healthcare accessibility and treatment should be the same for all Americans. Moreover, even businesses and health care companies stand to benefit. By reducing asthma treatment disparities by 10%, blacks could save over $1,600 per person annually in additional medical costs and missed work. Following that line of logic, people on Medicare and Medicaid would reduce emergency room visits and medical hospitalizations, or excess costs for insurance companies, if access to certain kinds of treatment were the same.
The color of your skin, the size of your wallet, or your five digit zip code cannot become the the determining factors of the quality of life. As a result, in the fight for equity and fairness, health care cannot be left behind.