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Race Drives the War on Universal Health Care

New America Media, News analysis, Earl Ofari Hutchinson Posted: Mar 12, 2009

President Obama has heard almost all of the arguments against universal health care. One he wont hear from opponents, the private insurers and hospitals, is that they fear having to cover and treat the millions of black and Hispanic uninsured. According to the Commonwealth Fund, blacks and Hispanics make up nearly half of the estimated 50 million Americans who have no health care insurance. They are far more likely than the one in four uninsured whites to experience problems getting treatment at a hospital or clinic. And they have fewer choices in getting health care coverage.

The huge racial disparity in the number of uninsured has been a sticking point for every Democratic president since Harry Truman proposed the first national health care plan in the late 1940s. President Obama will fight the same battle against private insurers and health care providers when he dumps his proposals for universal health care on the congressional table.

But the disparity in access to, and quality of, health care for minorities has fueled the crisis and the urgency for reform.

A recent study by the Archives of Internal Medicine examined treatment and care for more than 150,000 Medicare patients. It found that hospitals and insurers pay far more to care for African Americans and Hispanics near death than for whites. Researchers tossed out several theories such as cultural differences, spiritual beliefs, patients fears, and even family breakdown to explain the gap in cost. Those explanations are an exercise in victim blaming. The end-of-life hospital and treatment costs for blacks and Hispanics are higher because of the decades of medical neglect and the profit grabs by private medical providers.

Countless studies have shown that blacks and Hispanics suffer higher rates of catastrophic illness and disease, and are much less likely to obtain basic drugs, tests, preventive screenings and surgeries. They are more likely to recover slower from illness, and they die much younger.

Studies have found that when blacks and Hispanics do receive treatment, the care they receive is more likely to be substandard than that of whites. Reports indicate that even when blacks and Hispanics are enrolled in high quality health plans, the gap in the care and quality of medical treatment still remains.

Private insurers routinely cherry pick the healthiest and most financially secure patients in order to bloat profits and hold down costs. American medical providers spend twice as much per patient than providers in countries with universal health care, and they provide lower quality for the inflated bucks. Patients pay more in higher insurance premiums, co-payments, fees and other hidden health costs. At the same time, government medical insurance programs shell out more than public insurers in other countries with universal health care.

The massive public attention and anger over the health crisis has caused insurers, their lobbyists and political flacks to scramble. Americas Health Insurance Plans, the major insurer industry group, recently announced that it will put its considerable muscle behind health care reform. On the surface, the announcement seemed to be a major breakthrough: the industry has finally seen the light and will work with President Obama to make real health care reform a reality. But thats not the case. The group has not softened its resistance to providing coverage to those that it labels high risk or, less charitably, undesirables. Those are the millions who suffer chronic and major diseasescancer, diabetes, asthma and heart disease. Blacks and Latinos have higher incidences of these ailments than whites.

Under the AHIPs reform plan, insurers will still be free to exclude high-risk cases from coverage. The government, ostensibly, will provide coverage and pay the costs for them. But even that concession is suspect. The issue is cost and the ancient fear, or at least scare tactic, is government control of medical care. Private insurers and their lobbyists have blared that for decades to torpedo reform. Obamas mere mention that hell impose higher taxes on the wealthy to pay for coverage of the uninsured stirred war hoops from them of deficit busting and socialized medicine. They shouted that to derail Clintons reform plan in 1994.

The battle for universal health care will again be a titanic struggle between a health care industry that has had its way for six decades and has gutted every proposal and plan for expanded health care. The arguments will be the same as always: cost, inefficiency, heavy-handed government control and interference. Race, of course, will never be mentioned as a reason to water down or shelve completely Obamas plan. But, as always, it will lurk underneath. President Obama will have his hands full on this one.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is How Obama Won (Middle Passage Press, January 2009).

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