OAKLAND, Calif. - The Affordable Care Act (ACA), the health care bill passed by Congress last year, has opened the way for great progress toward overcoming racial, ethnic, gender and geographic health disparities. But much hard work lies ahead to make sure its promise is realized at the federal, state and community level.
This was the message of the 2011 Health Equity Summit, held here Sept. 17. The conference brought together members of the Congressional Black, Asian Pacific American and Hispanic Caucuses - known together as the Tri-Caucus - with public health leaders, community members and health organizations serving people of color, the LGBT community, people living with HIV AIDS, and other underserved groups.
"Never before has the issue of health disparities been so much on the national agenda," Dr. Garth Graham of the Department of Health and Human Services said in his keynote address. Among the features of the health care act, Graham said, is a National Prevention Strategy that includes as one of its four main points, eliminating health disparities.
Leaders of agencies and departments that "have existed in silos" are coming together in a new way to deal with both disparities and prevention, he said.
The gathering also highlighted HR 2954, the Health Equity and Accountability Act of 2011, recently introduced by Tri-Caucus members Reps. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., Donna Christensen, D-V.I. and Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif.
The bill would strengthen the ACA, and take additional steps to gather and analyze information on racial and ethnic health disparities, and invest in measures to close the gaps.
"We want to target resources to communities striving to overcome social determinants like poverty, inadequate housing, racism and institutional biases," Lee said.
Lee called on participants to help gain co-sponsors: "We have 68 co-sponsors; we want 250," she said.
A thread running through the summit was the urgency of not just collecting health data but analyzing it according to the various communities served. Panelists pointed to the much higher occurrence of hepatitis B, diabetes, heart disease, HIV AIDS and many other conditions among specific groups.
California Assemblyman Mike Eng., D-Monterey Park, whose AB 1088 would require that data be analyzed and posted on a web site, declared, "If we don't have that canary in the coal mine, then if you're of a certain ethnic group or gender, you could die."
Panelists also took note of the political climate within which preparations to launch the ACA are taking place.
"We fought for health equity in the Affordable Care Act, and the Health Equity bill will go farther, to assure culturally and linguistically appropriate services," Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., said in an interview. "It's tough now in this Congress. We will be fortunate to keep what we have. We felt it was important to introduce the Health Equity Act now, and give people something to fight for."
A moving moment occurred when Li Ying Li, an immigrant from Taiwan and a patient at Oakland's Asian Health Services, told how staff there always spoke with her in Cantonese, and when she was sent to a specialist with no Cantonese speaking staff, AHS provided an interpreter.
"I am grateful to AHS for making sure that even though I don't speak English, I could get care," Li said. "As a voter, I want to thank all of you for working to make sure there are services for people like me."
Asked, as he prepared to moderate the day's final panel, what ordinary people can do to help bring the Affordable Care Act to life, and pass the Health Equity Act, Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., put it into one word, "Vote!
"We have to make sure we take care of business," he said. "When we're in charge, things get done."
The gathering was convened by the Asian and Pacific Islander American Health Forum, and the Association of Asian Pacific Community Health Organizations.
Photo: Pictured at the summit are, l to r, Jenn Ng'andu, National Council of La Raza, and Reps. Mike Honda, D-Calif., Barbara Lee, D-Calif. and Donna Christensen, D-V.I. Marilyn Bechtel/PW.