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Monday, November 22, 2010

Martin Luther King Jr.: A Civil Rights Icon's Thoughts on Health Care

Martin Luther King is an American hero who has become a symbol for Americans fighting for social justice. He influenced a generation to rise up and fight against inequality, even when the easier choice would have been to just give up. Most might not think of Dr. King as a health care hero, but when the civil rights movement began to address systematic inequalities in America, health care was one issue that attracted King's attention.

In 1966, just one year after the Civil Rights Act ended legal segregation, an African American had an average lifespan that was seven years shorter than the average lifespan of a white person. In the South, the average African American's lifespan was seventeen years shorter.

King believed that laws were important for change, but that the new laws needed to support the growth of African American communities and their economic power so that the daily experience of African Americans would be more empowering.

In 1966, he began to establish projects in northern urban black neighborhoods with the Southern Christian Leadership Committee (SCLC) staff in an attempt to develop what he called a "beloved community." He began in Chicago, where he stated in a presentation at the 1966 Second National Convention of the Medical Committee for Human Rights in Chicago that "[o]f all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane."

Later that year King joined the doctors of the Medical Committee for Human Rights (MCHR) in a march to encourage African Americans to vote. The doctors of the MCHR advocated that all citizens deserve to have access to quality health care. After a marcher died because he could not get proper health care, King arranged the press along the road where he was marching and "gave this blistering attack on the segregated health care system in Mississippi that had denied this man adequate medical care."

King died only two years after this march, so it is difficult to predict how his position on health care would have matured, but his overall position on structural reform is something that is embraced by the new health reform bill.

A fact sheet from the Kaiser Foundation discusses how health care reform will make the health system more equitable for communities of color. Here are some highlights:

  • Expanded community health centers means more access for communities of color, since half of those who receive care at a community health center are people of color. Each health reform proposal includes funding increases for community health centers, which would help them meet the needs of their patient population.
  • The Indian Health Care Improvement Act was authorized for the first time since 2001. This Act includes provisions to improve health promotion and disease prevention services, to improve access to care for urban Indians, and to modernize facilities where American Indians and Alaska Natives receive care.
  • Increased workforce development will help with the shortage of health professionals that is getting worse, mostly in low-income rural and urban areas. The law contains provisions aimed at increasing the number of providers, particularly primary care providers, and increasing the number of providers in medically underserved areas.
  • A focus on prevention will help eliminate disparities. People of color experience higher rates of many chronic conditions and death rates from many of these conditions compared to whites. In addition, the costs associated with these diseases are high. Preventing these conditions will save money and lives.

We think Martin Luther King would be proud.