Bill Hendrick, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 7, 2006
Former Surgeon General David Satcher said Friday at a conference on racial disparities in America’s health care system that more than 83,500 “excess deaths” among black Americans annually could be prevented if the “black-white mortality gap” could be eliminated.
In an interview at the Morehouse School of Medicine, the former surgeon general and former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 5,000 African-American babies die a year who would live if a gap in treatment didn’t exist.
Satcher, a physician who holds professorships in medicine at Morehouse, spoke to several dozen people attending a conference of the National Academy of Social Insurance. He called for better efforts to close health care gaps between the races.
Disparities in basic health care are the reason African-Americans have a shorter life expectancy than whites and why blacks are more likely to suffer from chronic medical conditions, he said.
The conference’s theme was that Medicare, as the nation’s largest purchaser of health care, should be the leader in reducing racial and ethnic disparities in treatment.
Satcher, who also is director of the Center of Excellence on Health Disparities, said the disparities that exist in lifespan and infant death also exist in other areas.
“It’s the same for diabetes, cancer, other diseases,” he said. “If treatment were equal, including access, many African-Americans who die would not.”
He said the main reason for the gap is what he called “the uns — people who are uninsured, underinsured, underserved, underrepresented, uninformed and who are untrusting because of experiences they’ve had. We have to focus on those uns.”
The life expectancy of a black male at birth is 6.3 years less than that of a white male, and two years less at age 65, the report said.
Improving the system and attempting to close the gap will require additional spending on the federal health program for the elderly, Medicare. The National Academy of Social Insurance urged Congress to appropriate more funds.
The academy’s “Study Panel on Medicare and Markets” reported “significant racial, ethnic and income-related disparities in preventive care, primary care and essential medical and surgical treatments … These issues will become even more important in the future as the proportion of minorities among the elderly population and among Medicare beneficiaries continues to increase. …
“Marked disparities persist in health care among Medicare beneficiaries, although disparities in the use of health care services by race and income have diminished” in recent years, the report’s authors said.
“Disparities are not just a function of an African-American problem, but an American problem,” Satcher said. “None of us should be satisfied until disparities are eliminated.”
And disparities don’t just exist among racial and ethnic groups in this country, but among countries, he said.
“Despite the fact that we spend far more than any other county per capita [on health care] and a greater percentage of GNP [gross national product], we rank 24th when it comes to mortality,” Satcher said.
However, Satcher said the program is too confusing for even educated Americans to understand.
He called on faith groups such as churches to establish programs to prevent elderly folks from having to guess which of many prescription options to sign up for.
“Ninety million Americans are illiterate,” he said. “Most Medicare documents they don’t understand, let alone the drug prescription parts. It’s the same for most baby boomers. It’s a confusing concept.”