By Freddie Allen
NNPA Washington Correspondent
WASHINGNTON (NNPA) – In less than a week, health insurance market exchanges will open across the nation and more than 40 million Americans, including 7 million uninsured Blacks, who were previously shut out of the health care system, will finally get access to the care they need.
Blacks account for about 15 percent of the total nonelderly uninsured population, including 1 million Black children.
“When it comes to health care access, communities of color across this nation are at a critical historical junction,” said Sinsi Hernández-Cancio, director of Health Equity at Families USA, a national non-profit group that advocates for high-quality, affordable health care.
Hernández-Cancio said that for as long as this issue has been studied, minority communities have struggled with a greater burden of chronic diseases, both in terms of prevalence and the severity of negative outcomes.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, Black infants die from complications related to low birthweight at a rate that is four times higher than White infants. Black infants also die from sudden infant death syndrome at a rate that is twice as high as White infants.
The Office of Minority Health found that Black men were diagnosed with prostate cancer at a rate that was 1.6 times higher than White men and that Black women diagnosed with breast cancer “were almost 40% more likely to die from breast cancer” than White women.
Even though, Black adults are 40 percent more likely to have hypertension than their White counterparts, they are 10 percent less likely to have their blood pressure in check.
The average life span for Black men is five years shorter than the average life span for White men. For Black women the average life span is three years shorter than the average life span for White women.
“Not only are we more likely to get sick and get sicker from a slew of chronic diseases we face multiple obstacles to getting the care we need, not the least of which is lower rates of insurance than non-Hispanic White Americans,” said Hernández-Cancio.
According to a recent report by Families USA, “nearly one-quarter (23.4 percent) of African Americans have been diagnosed with a condition that, without health reform, could lead to a denial of coverage.”
Hernández-Cancio called the Affordable Care Act a game changer.
“Now, more transparent reliable and affordable coverage options are going to be available for millions of people along with financial assistance for hard working families to pay for the coverage that they choose,” said Hernández-Cancio.
Etoy Ridgnal, the national director for African American Engagement for Enroll America, a non-profit group that collaborates with health care stakeholders to maximize the number of people that enroll in health insurance programs, said that the Affordable Care Act will allow Blacks to gain access to affordable health care plans that will fit the particular needs of their families.
In an effort to increase awareness about the Affordable Care Act and to assist individuals and families in the enrollment process, the Department of Health and Human Services awarded $67 million in grants to community organizations and state and local health care groups.
“Navigators will be among the many resources available to help consumers understand their coverage options in the Marketplace,” said Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in a press release. “A network of volunteers on the ground in every state – health care providers, business leaders, faith leaders, community groups, advocates, and local elected officials – can help spread the word and encourage their neighbors to get enrolled.”
Dizzy Warren, community outreach manager for Michigan Consumers for Health Care said that her organization, a coalition of 200 health care groups that serve the entire state, began working two and half years ago to make sure that consumers had voice in the implementation process in her state.
Warren said that health care advocates that work in minority communities recognized the importance of forming partnerships with trusted community stakeholders who were already active in the neighborhoods that they wanted to reach.
“In some cases those people have volunteered and in a lot of instances we have recognized that if we are going to get the vulnerable populations insured, we had to proactively go out and locate the organizations that serve those populations,” said Warren.
Warren said that the Michigan Consumers for Health Care sought out churches, local branches of civil rights groups and gay rights groups in a very deliberate way. Warren said that working at the grassroots level wasn’t enough and they also had to work from a “grasstop perspective.”
That meant reaching out to national organizations such as Enroll America, Planned Parenthood and the United Way, said Warren.
The partnerships have enabled group Enroll America and similar groups to have a an impact in 10 states, going door to door and reaching out to people in barbershops, beauty salons and churches.
Ridgnal added: “We would not be able to do any significant effort of this scale without significant outreach in the African American community.”
Ridgnal said that Enroll America is also reaching out to Black churches at the national level as well as local and state-based conferences. The group rolled out a program called “Healthcare in the Pulpit” to encourage pastors and churches to get involved in spreading awareness about the health insurance market exchanges and they planned day of action planned for October 27 to augment their efforts.
“The process involves a lot of trust. It is not accomplished solely by having talking heads on the news and flashy ads with famous people and catchy jingles on the radio, although all of these things are very important to raise awareness.” said Hernández-Cancio.
Some may be wary of sharing personal information with strangers for fear of getting ripped off, said Hernández-Cancio.
On a recent call with reporters, senior White House officials said that the attorney general’s office, the Federal Trade Commission, insurance commissioners and the Department of Health and Human Services are working together to prevent fraud and to protect consumers and instill confidence in the new health marketplace.
Senior White House officials cited a track record that the agencies had in working on consumer protection issues, from exposing and prosecuting home mortgage and refinancing schemes during the height of the financial crisis to warning survivors of natural disasters about potential fraud perpetrated by scam artists.
According to officials, FTC’s Consumer Sentinel database will be one of the key tools that the agencies will use to keep people safe on the health insurance exchanges. The Consumer Sentinel will be used to track consumer complaints and to identify emerging trends.
The senior White House officials said that they are not seeing fraud on a large scale now, but their ongoing efforts to protect this newest group of health care consumers was more about getting ahead of the curve.
“We know that this isn’t a sprint, it’s more of a marathon. We see October 1 as a key date, but we know this is a six-month process, enrollment goes through March,” said Ridgnal. “Our focus is on doing everything we can to reach out to partners across the country to ensure that we are hitting every possible venue in outreach efforts to our community and really doing everything we can to ensure that folks understand the options that are available to them.”
Etoy Ridgnal, the national director for African American Engagement added: “This is a new day and a new opportunity and we have to seize this as a community and really work to ensure that our folks are participating.”
(People looking for more information about the new health insurance market exchanges can go to www.healthcare.gov or call 800-318-2596.)