Communities of color bear unfair illness burden

April 16, 2010
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As the country continues the conversation on health care reform, it is April, which is National Minority Health Month, a time recognized by the federal government to examine the persistent challenge of reducing racial and ethnic health disparities. While we celebrate the achievement of national legislation that will provide more health care coverage for people of all backgrounds, we cannot ignore the limitations of health care alone to eliminate the disparities in health status between diverse populations.

In Massachusetts, communities of color bear a disproportionate burden of illness and death, living sicker and shorter lives than the majority population. Health disparities are not caused by poor behavior or unknown forces, but result from social and economic barriers to good health. Even when an individual has health insurance, the person can live in an environment that simply doesn’t have the resources necessary to live a healthy life.

For instance, we face a growing epidemic of diabetes in youths, with children of color most affected. If not reversed, this epidemic will continue to prove costly for the health care system. But we cannot simply promote healthy eating to children and families. We must ensure that they have access to affordable, nutritious foods. Too many residents of color live in communities with dozens of fast food restaurants, but not a single grocery store or farmer’s market. Too many minority children are served unhealthy foods in school-prepared lunches. We don’t need to simply change eating behaviors. We need to ensure access to better food options.

The legislature has taken an important step forward to address this, by approving school nutrition legislation that will set nutritional guidelines for food sold in public schools, giving schools incentives to buy local produce and engaging communities in creating wellness policies. Another pending piece of legislation creates a statewide council to strengthen local farming and access to healthy local food. These policies demonstrate the importance of addressing obesity and diabetes disparities by improving healthy food resources in community and economic development policies.

Massachusetts has another important policy opportunity to move forward on additional social and economic determinants of health disparities. Legislation is pending that establishes a permanent Executive level Office of Health Equity. The Office would create comprehensive solutions to the root causes of health disparities by bringing together multiple sectors: health, housing, community development, environment and transportation. It would serve as a home for efforts that create health supportive polices and programs in all the commonwealth’s state agencies. This type of collaboration is the only way we will begin to dismantle the barriers to good health faced by too many of the state’s residents.

Health insurance and medical care alone will not provide the solution to health disparities. We need structural and systemic changes to provide healthy environments for all. Health inequality deprives us of health care dollars and the greater well-being of our residents. During National Minority Health Month, let’s make a commitment to eliminate health disparities by moving forward with policies that support health equity.

State Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez
Jamaica Plain