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Promoting the Health Care Law Today because Health Equity Can’t Wait

Families USA is proudly taking part in the Health Equity Can’t Wait! blog carnival celebrating National Minority Health Month. Participating bloggers are health, consumer, civil rights, and provider advocates committed to promoting health equity. You can find all the posts for the carnival here.

Recently, I had the privilege of participating in a dynamic community forum in Philadelphia organized with our partners, National Council of La Raza (NCLR) and Congreso de Latinos Unidos. It was an exciting morning. U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin headlined the event, and it was standing room only. The mostly Puerto Rican crowd included seniors and students, local elected leaders and activists, health care providers and patients. They were there for one reason: They wanted to know how the health care law would make a difference in their lives. We were there because our mission is to spread the good news that the health care law is going to make an enormous difference, and we must work together to ensure the communities that need it the most take advantage of it and get the care they need.

When it was my turn I asked the crowd some questions: “How many of you know someone whose baby was premature?” About a quarter of the hands in the room went up. “How many of you know someone with diabetes?” Now about half the audience raised their hands. And when I asked how many knew someone with asthma, the hands that shot up vastly outnumbered the rest. Yep, there it was, evidence of what I call “the Puerto Rican curse,” that yet to be explained phenomenon of Puerto Ricans having the highest asthma prevalence and mortality rates of any group in the nation.

Back in my office in Washington, D.C., I spent a lot of time studying disparity statistics-a stream of charts and graphs flickering across my computer screen. But there in that room, overflowing with human lives, those numbers had faces. I heard their voices, felt their need. Their thirst for information was palpable, with question after question, people struggled to make sense of what seemed an overly complicated, confusing law whose relevance to their lives seemed remote. Their hunger for health care justice was even more intense. We heard story after story about the obstacles they confronted: “my drug co-pays are too expensive;” “people’s doctors’ don’t speak their language;” “it takes three months to get an appointment.”

And because I, a Puerto Rican woman, and my little boy, are also victims of that curse, we talked about asthma-about how we know how to treat it, that it’s really pretty simple, that no child has to die. Just make sure you have both a rescue inhaler and controller medication. That is how to stay out of the hospital, keep your kid in school and learning, keep her alive. But then one mom raised her hand, and asked, with a little embarrassment and a lot of anxiety, “What should you do if you can only afford one?”

I couldn’t answer. Telling her she’d have cheaper options in 2014 seemed cruelly absurd.

This is why health equity can’t wait-too many moms face this terrible choice, especially in communities of color. And if it’s not asthma then it’s diabetes or heart disease or one of the many cancers that are more deadly if your skin is dark. Sure, there are things that are helping right now. Millions of seniors can better afford their medications. More than 2.5 million young adults under 26 have been able to stay on their parent’s insurance plans, including 1.3 million young people of color. Of course those are the ones lucky enough to have parents who have insurance. You can get preventive care with no copays, provided you have insurance. And that woman’s child can no longer be denied coverage because of her asthma-but whether her parents can afford to pay for the coverage is another question entirely.

In this case, because of the health care law, that woman at the forum did have a better option. Congreso just opened a new federally qualified health center that provides free or very low cost care, right across the street, thanks to billions of dollars of new federal funding made available by the law. Because of this new money, she and her child had somewhere affordable to go.

Nevertheless, that night, as I diligently used both my inhalers and called home to make sure my son had as well, I gave thanks for being lucky enough to not be faced with those kinds of choices, and prayed that all those who do every day somehow stay healthy and safe for another 18 months.