Health experts say minority access key to reform

  • By Alex Parker
  • Staff Writer
  • June 24, 2009 @ 12:00 PM

With the national debate on health care focusing on broadening insurance options, a panel of experts last night focused on what they say is a far more important issue facing the Chicago area -- racial disparities in access to care.

Language barriers, education and income, and lack of access to treatment affect many minorities in the area, they said.

In Cook County alone, 30 percent of Asians are "language isolated," said Dr. Hong Liu, executive director of the Asian Health Coaliltion of Illinois, meaning they are often unable to understand diagnoses or treatment options.

The county's Asian population also has elevated rates of cancer, liver disease and depression, and has the lowest screening rates of all ethnic groups she said.

The discussion on health and health care disparities focused on the need to provide care for all, but also to promote education at a grassroots level, panelists at the University of Illinois at Chicago's Institute for Policy and Civic Engagement said.

Speaking to concerned citizens, Dr. Terry Mason, head of the Chicago Department of Public Health said the lack of health care to 46 million Americans stifles conversation about reform.

Dr. Terry Mason, head of the Chicago Department of Public Health, moderates a discussion on health care. / By Alex Parker

“We have not had a legitimate health care conversation in America yet,” he said.

And no matter what plan rises to the top, Mason said the results are what matters. He discussed his experience working in England, which has national health care; though English patients sometimes had to wait longer for an operation, they were as healthy as Americans, he said.

“The outcomes at the end of the day are the same,” Mason said. “The outcomes are what we need to worry about.”

The panelists, which included UIC faculty members, local health care advocates and Illinois Department of Public Health director Dr. Damon Arnold said regular people pay the price of an imperfect health system.

The panelists lamented the disparity of treatment and access to health care that minority communities experience.

Aida Giachello, director of the Midwest Latino Health Research, Training and Policy Center at UIC, said the country’s minority population is experiencing a perfect storm of poverty, lack of education and access, and other tools to stay health – all of which make now the best time for reform.

“The crisis is now. The moment is now,” she said.

With so many minority communities experiencing similar problems, Dr. Janine Hill Lewis, a community-based health care consultant, said neighborhoods are the best place to start identifying and fixing problems in disparity, some of which result from cultural misunderstanding.

Community health workers, who understand the daily issues of patients, can make a bigger difference than lawmakers, she said.

“They are the people who should be doing this work, and educating in culturally-knowledgeable manner,” she said.

Former Illinois Senate President Emil Jones, who spoke before the panel, voiced his concerns about the plight of the working poor, whose insurance has been cut since the recession began. He discussed the uneasy relationship between the poor, doctors and the government.

“Many of the poor who don’t have health care use the hospitals as primary care,” he said. “And many physicians don’t like to treat those without health care because the government doesn’t pay much, and the government doesn’t pay on time.”

And with several options for health care reform up for debate in Washington, Jones said there is no magic cure.

Jones also called on the General Assembly to not allow the so-called doomsday budget, which would cut billions in health and human services, to become a reality.

“Someone upstairs needs to say we can’t cut up people’s lives,” agreed Arnold.

Daily News Staff Writer Alex Parker covers public health. He can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 17, or alex [at] chitowndailynews [dot] org.