By Tina Irgang and Sharmina Manandhar
WASHINGTON – Maryland lawmakers underscored the urgency of equitable health care reform on Capitol Hill Tuesday, drawing attention to a new report by the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University that highlights the economic burden of discriminatory health care practices.
The study, commissioned by Washington-based think tank The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, found that the U.S. lost $1.24 trillion between 2003 and 2006 through disparities in minority care. Also, African Americans, Hispanics and Asian Americans face 30 percent higher medical costs through health inequities.
Eugene Grant, Seat Pleasant mayor and president of the Maryland Conference of Black Mayors, moderated Tuesday’s news conference announcing the study. He was joined by several Maryland lawmakers and mayors.
“Not having an affordable health care option negatively impacts the community and threatens the economic recovery in the municipalities that our mayors represent,” Grant said.
“Meaningful” reform will prevent diseases, provide appropriate health care and ensure that people live longer, said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore.
“There are so many people who are dying early and there are so many people who are suffering needlessly,” Cummings said. “Many of them because they don’t have insurance.”
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Kensington, agreed, saying “We need to get the job done now and we need to get the job done right.”
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, said: “Health care is not an option. Health care is a necessity.”
The issue of racial disparity in health care reform becomes more important considering the rapidly changing demographics of the nation, according to Brian Smedley, vice president and director of the Health Policy Institute of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that by 2042, people of color will make up half the population of the United States.
“Increasingly, the health of our nation is defined by the health of people of color. We ought not to leave them behind.” Smedley said. “We ought to ensure that health care reform addresses the needs of all populations and ensures that everybody can live to their best possible standard of health.”
Marylanders of color suffer particularly under the current health care system, since they are at higher risks of diabetes, high blood pressure, and certain kinds of cancer, according to Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Fort Washington.
The House legislators also backed a “public option” in the health reform bill, which would add a government-funded alternative to the private insurance market. Out of the five health bills in Congress, the legislation under consideration by the Senate Finance Committee is the only one without a public option. Many Republican lawmakers oppose the idea of government insurance.
“We are going to pass this bill out of the House with a strong and robust public option,” Cummings said.
The public option will help bring prices down and increase the quality of health care, according to Van Hollen.
“We keep hearing from folks from the other side of the aisle that they want more competition,” Van Hollen said. “Well this is more competition.”
Edwards also made the case for the government-funded insurance option.
“I believe a robust public option that lowers cost, ensures competition and provides accountability is critical to reform,” Edwards said.
Earlier in the day, Edwards joined House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other members of the Democratic Women’s Working Group at a news conference to draw attention to another kind of health care disparity — this time against women.
“It is imperative that we enact health care reform that eliminates the practice of categorizing such things as pregnancy, Caesarian section, and even domestic violence as a pre-existing condition,” Edwards said. “Domestic violence is a crime, not a pre-existing condition.”
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., had organized a news conference on the same topic the week before.
At the event, Mikulski said women face discrimination under today’s health care system and therefore have a particularly high stake in reform.