Frist Unveils Minority Health Bill

Nancy Zuckerbrod, AP, Sept. 30, 2006

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is aligning himself with Democrats in hopes of enhancing his political legacy through an effort to improve minority health care.

Frist, a Tennessee Republican who is retiring this year and is considering a 2008 presidential run, introduced the legislation Friday. The bill authorizes roughly $500 million to reduce disease rates among racial and ethnic minorities and some poor rural whites.

The other sponsors are Democratic Sens. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, Barack Obama of Illinois and Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico.

Lawmakers are scheduled to work Saturday but then recess until after the election, when they will return for a lame-duck session. Senate aides, speaking on the condition of anonymity because a strategy has not been completed, said Frist would probably try to attach the health bill to another measure in November. They said a spending measure is an obvious choice.

“This bill paves the way to better health care for disparity populations by increasing research, enhancing education and improving patient-provider communication,” said Frist, who often takes the lead on health care legislation.

Added Kennedy, “Your health should not depend on the color of your skin, the size of your bank account or where you live.”

The legislation calls for research into why some groups have higher rates of disease than others and attempts to eliminate such disparities. Just a few statistics from the Centers for Disease Control include:

_Black women are more likely to die of breast cancer than women of any other racial or ethnic group.

_Rates of death from heart disease were 29 percent higher among black adults than white adults in 2000.

_American Indians and Alaska Natives were 2.6 times more likely to have been diagnosed with diabetes compared with non-Hispanic whites in 2000.

The bill would restore funding to several programs that have experienced cuts, including initiatives to increase minority enrollment in medical schools.

“I think it helps to have a diverse health profession. I think it makes it more culturally sensitive,” said former Surgeon General David Satcher, a leading advocate for narrowing health gaps between groups.

The legislation sets up grant programs, including one for hospitals to conduct research on health disparities. The bill also creates a Food and Drug Administration panel that would make recommendations on issues related to racial and ethnic minorities.

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