By WADE HENDERSON | 3/23/11 4:40 AM EDT
As an African-American man, I can expect my life to be six years shorter than that of the average American.
That’s six fewer years watching my daughters thrive as young women, six fewer years with my wife and six fewer years to be an active participant in the country I love. Even as the homicide rate for black men has decreased, this stubborn disparity persists. If left unaddressed, it means the 16.5 million black men now living in the U.S. will lose about 99 million years of productive life.
The demographic reality is clear — and not confined to African-Americans. Many other groups that collectively make up the majority of the country are at greater risk for health problems and premature death.
Tuberculosis strikes Asian-Americans at a rate 16 times higher than the general public. Latinos are twice as likely to die from diabetes. Women are three times more likely than men to suffer from autoimmune diseases.
A significant contributor to these health disparities is unequal access to health insurance and, therefore, to adequate health care. Though people of color represent one-third of all Americans, they make up half of the uninsured population. Seventeen million women in the U.S. have no health insurance — including one in five women of reproductive age — and face significant financial barriers to getting care. Millions of Americans with disabilities have no access to needed coverage.
When the Affordable Care Act passed last year, civil rights groups strongly supported it. They saw an unparalleled opportunity to address these disparities and close the gap in life quality and life expectancy for all Americans.
The health care reform law recognizes that poor quality of care disproportionately affects certain communities, and it attempts to close these gaps. It requires the collection of key demographic data to ensure that these disparities can be identified and the right fixes made.
It seeks to increase the diversity and improve the cultural competence of the health care work force. These changes are likely to improve care overall and increase access in many medically underserved communities.
But only one year after it was enacted, and many years before most provisions go into effect, the health care law has been targeted by a group of state attorneys general and members of Congress. These individuals hope to defund and repeal it — and even challenge its constitutionality. This approach shows tenacity and conviction. But for the people subject to these disparities, it’s not just wrong; it’s dead wrong.
The health care reform law is vital to improving the health and life expectancy of a majority of Americans — including low-income families, people of color, women, seniors and people with disabilities. It is designed to expand lifesaving health insurance coverage to 32 million people — including those who have had the least access to care.
The law also makes important investments in disease prevention, which is critical to reducing the high incidence of diabetes, HIV/AIDS, hypertension, obesity and asthma experienced by Americans of all backgrounds.
It took a century for the federal government to meaningfully address the need for a just and equitable health care system that shows respect for the lives of all Americans. We must protect the integrity and continuity of the law.
It is Congress’s responsibility to ensure that the law is properly implemented and its programs sufficiently funded. The civil and human rights community stands behind that effort.
Wade Henderson is president and chief executive officer of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 national organizations. It can be found at www.civilrights.org.
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