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Partnership Will Attack ‘Disease of Social Injustice’

By Kathy Gurchiek  2/13/2008

Helping large employers address inequities in health care available to racial and ethnic minorities is the focus of a collaboration between the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Minority Health (OMH) and the National Business Group on Health (NBGH).

The partnership was announced during a Feb. 11, 2008, news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. It will tackle what the OMH says are two major factors of disparity in care: inadequate access and substandard quality.

This disparity, the OMH stated, occurs regardless of economic and health insurance status. It is not entirely explained by differences in access, clinical appropriateness and patient preferences, it said, and can be the result of communication between patient and health care provider, as well as discrimination, stereotyping of patients and prejudice.

There is a distinction between a disparity in health status—such as mortality and morbidity rates among racial and minority groups—and a disparity in health care access, pointed out Ron Davis, American Medical Association (AMA) president and a member of the partnership’s advisory board.

The latter is “a disease of social injustice,” Davis said during the news conference. It is a topic he said the AMA is especially concerned about and takes “accountability for how health care is delivered.

“When patients fail to receive high-quality health care because of race or ethnicity, the entire nation suffers,” Davis said.

He pointed to some actions the AMA already is taking, such as promoting diversity among the health professional workforce and collaboration between the medical and corporate communities.

Tackling disparity not only is the right thing to do, said Helen Darling, NBGH president, but it also makes good business sense.

Disparities in care have health consequences such as misdiagnoses and less likelihood of receiving preventive services. These disparities also increase health care costs and contribute to absenteeism, disability and productivity loss, she noted.

Removing disparity entails meeting the needs of a culturally diverse workforce and contributing actively “to reducing unintended but nonetheless very harmful disparities,” she said.

“It’s no longer enough to provide the same benefits and hope everything works out,” Darling said.

The two-year collaboration between the NBGH and OMH includes an advisory board charged with identifying best practices for employers, developing a toolkit for employers and overseeing the NBGH’s plans for updating its analysis of the business case for addressing disparities in health care.

The issue of health care disparity is not a black, Hispanic, Native American or Asian one, emphasized Garth Graham, deputy assistant secretary for minority health at Health and Human Services.

“This is really, truly an American problem,” he said during the news conference. “This is something we all have a responsibility for dealing with.”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at

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