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Thursday, February 21, 2013

At Risk in the Budget Battle: Health Care for Communities of Color

Sascha Murillo

Staff Writer

The budget fight is sure to heat up in the next couple of months in what seems like a never-ending battle between the President and Congress. So what’s at stake? Many lawmakers want to see large cuts to a range of health care programs—many of which reduce health disparities and provide vital services to millions of people of color. Such cuts would exact a heavy toll on the health of communities of color and only worsen racial inequities in health.

People of color are more likely to suffer from chronic diseases (such as diabetes, hypertension, and asthma), lack insurance, and lack a usual source of care, as compared to whites. To make matters worse, health disparities impose a significant burden on the nation’s economy. The National Urban League estimates that in 2009, higher rates of chronic illness in communities of color cost the U.S. economy $82.2 billion. This includes direct medical costs incurred by the federal government, insurance companies, and individuals and families, as well as lost labor productivity due to work hours missed from illness.

However, many health care programs aimed specifically at reducing health disparities through community investments, better outreach, and improved research have been the victim of spending cuts over the past two years. Programs that invest in better health care services are vital to ensuring that people of color and other medically underserved populations get the care they need. For example, the Department of Health and Human Service’s Office of Minority Health is an important leader, funder, and essential coordinating entity for advancing health equity, yet spending caps imperil its important mission. Unless our leaders can reach a deal, the Office of Minority Health and other already struggling programs will face automatic, indiscriminate cuts scheduled for March 1.  

Many in Congress are also contemplating cuts to Medicaid and Medicare, which would severely affect communities of color. For one thing, half of all Black and Latino children rely on Medicaid to get the care they need. And, proposals that would shift large costs to low-income Medicare beneficiaries would hit older people of color, who are twice as likely to live in poverty as compared to white beneficiaries.

As our leaders negotiate a budget deal, it is crucial that they take into account the impact their decisions will have on communities of color and other vulnerable populations. We must demand an approach to deficit reduction that protects health care programs for vulnerable populations and that ensures progress toward achieving health equity.