Obama Highlights Reforms in Health and Finance

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President Obama plans to highlight two major issues this week: financial reforms and healthcare reform. The first is needed to avoid another raft of reckless risk-taking that drove the economy to the ground last year and left us with a jobless recovery over the next couple of quarters; the second has languished all summer but now appears to be on a fast track to enactment if the Senate Finance Committee can get its bill out to the floor.

Both issues are at the forefront of Obama?s domestic agenda, but it?s still uncertain whether the president will get his way. The banking and health insurance industries, along with their supporters in Congress, are pushing back against reforms.

The reforms so far outlined are expected to benefit the Black community most. Consider, for example, statistics from the Centers for Disease Control which show Blacks with a 51 percent higher prevalence of obesity compared with whites, and Hispanics with a 21 percent higher prevalence. African-Americans are also more likely to have no health insurance because they have lost their jobs at a higher rate than the rest of the population. In the current environment, losing a job also means losing health care for the family.

True, the health of the nation’s Black and Latino communities got a significant shot in the arm when the Department of Health and Human Services allocated $650 million for health and wellness on Sept. 21, according to PolicyLink, a national research and advocacy organization. Since Lehman Brothers collapsed last September, however, the job market has been a nightmare for many African-Americans, a situation that is expected to continue for some time because we are having a jobless economic recovery.

For example, the 2009 Layoff Tracker Report by UNITY (the umbrella organization for the Black, Hispanic, Asian-American and Native American journalist associations) shows an average 22 percent increase in journalism jobs lost each month from September 2008 through August 2009. During the same period, the economy shed jobs at an average pace of 8-plus percent each month. The news industry has shed 35,885 since Sept. 15, 2008, and 46,599 jobs since UNITY began tracking job losses on Jan. 1, 2008.

Racial inequalities in healthcare access and quality added more than $50 billion a year in direct U.S. healthcare costs over a four-year period, according to a study released today by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank. In this study, researchers at Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland found that more than 30 percent of direct medical expenditures for African-Americans, Asian Americans and Hispanics were excess costs linked to health inequalities. Between 2003 and 2006, these excess costs were $229.4 billion. The researchers estimate that the indirect costs of racial inequalities associated with illness and premature death amounted to more than a trillion dollars over the same time period.

Eliminating these inequalities would have saved the U.S. economy a grand total of $1.24 trillion dollars. The study notes that this four-year $1.24 trillion expenditure is more than the annual gross domestic product of India, the world’s 12th largest economy.

?This study shows that society has been paying a steep price in actual dollars and cents for racial and ethnic health disparities and unequal access to quality health care,? said Ralph B. Everett, president and CEO of the Joint Center. ?It also indicates that eliminating these racial inequalities will improve both the health status of our fellow citizens as well as our nation’s fiscal health.?

Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius points out that reducing minority health disparities is a top priority for the Obama administration, the Department of Health and Human Services ?and for me personally as Secretary.? There?s no single explanation for the disparities outlined in the report, she argues.

While there is no single solution either, we do know that the two biggest contributors to these disparities are a lack of access to insurance and a lack of access to care, the Secretary notes. Fixing these problems is a big part of why the Obama administration is so committed to passing health insurance reform this year, she insists.

Previous studies have established that minority Americans experience poorer than average health outcomes from cradle to grave. People of color are significantly more likely to die as infants, have higher rates of chronic disease and disability and shorter life spans.?