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Health Bill Hopes to Check Race at the (Emergency Room) Door

May 16, 2007

Minorities are at higher risk for health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and the list goes on. Some lawmakers and doctors say the solution to eliminating racial health care disparities is black and white in a proposed law they say would help bring health equality to Massachusetts. The House bill being discussed at a hearing today would create an Office of Health Equity that would look out for minorities and try to solve health and treatment problems they face. Doctor Joseph Betancourt from Mass General Hospital says he's seen many cases where minority patients get sub-par treatment for the same ailment.

“For example, two patients might present to the emergency room with a fracture of their arm or a fracture of their leg, and a minority patient might receive less pain medication than a white patient.”

Betancourt has seen numerous cases like this while working on an Institute of Medicine Committee for Disparities report in 2002. Although he doesn't think treatment disparities are intentional, they need to be addressed. Those who oppose the bill say the large health care databases which show sub-par treatment don't give enough information to truly compare medical decisions.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the rate for heart disease is 40 percent higher among African Americans than whites, and the rate of diabetes is twice as high for cultural Hispanics. April Taylor from the Boston Public Health Commission says the bill would try to stop these problems in the community before patients end up in the hospital.

“Treatment and access to care, those are the fundamental issues that we're concerned about in terms of disparities because many of these issues are preventable.”

The bill would create a community health worker program. Taylor calls the program a "bridge" that can get quality health care into communities that need it most.

Kevin Clay/Eric Mack, Public News Service - MA