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Maryland group to tackle health disparities

The state has assembled a work group of top health professionals to come up with ways to reduce health disparities among racial and ethnic groups, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown announced Thursday.

The seven-member panel, to be headed by Dr. E. Albert Reece, dean of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, will identify new legislation and financial incentives that can be used to bring equality to healthcare.

While studies have shown the overall life expectancy in the United States has improved, there are still large differences between the health of minorities and that of whites.

Last year, a study by the Baltimore City Health Department found that poorly educated, low-income city residents were twice as likely to die prematurely as their well-educated, affluent neighbors.

In making the announcement, Brown cited other sobering statistics. African-American babies in Maryland are more likely to die before the age of 1 than white babies. Twice as many African-Americans suffer from diabetes as white Marylanders.

Brown said the task force was not being convened to do another study to uncover what they already know about disparities, but to come up with solutions.

He said financial incentives should play a large part in encouraging hospitals, doctors and others in the health delivery system to help provide better care to disadvantaged groups. For instance, the group could consider incentives to encourage doctors to open in underserved areas or reward hospitals that reduce preventable hospitalizations in racial and ethnic communities.

"Health disparities are a financial issue as much as a moral issue," Brown said.

Hospitalizations of African-Americans in Maryland for treatable conditions such as asthma and hypertension cost Medicare an additional $26 million, according to a 2006 report.

The work group will also look at ways community programs can be used to address disparities.

Thursday's announcement was made at Blade Master Barbershop on Reisterstown Road in Baltimore. The shop is one of several that are participating in a local program in which health workers come in to take men's blood pressure. Those with elevated rates are referred to a health center or doctor and given literature on blood pressure.

The program screened 2,516 people last year and referred 12 percent of those to doctors. This year, it has screened 1,050 men.

The new state work group will operate under the Maryland Health Quality and Cost Council. The group will provide recommendations at the end of the year. An executive order establishing the work group was established earlier this month.

"We can and will do more to improve the health of all residents no matter their ZIP code," said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who was on hand for the announcement.

Baltimore health officials also recently unveiled a plan to target 10 ailments that affect city residents, including HIV infection and heart disease.

Under the initiative, health officials for the first time mapped out specific and comprehensive goals, such as reducing smoking rates by 20 percent and the number of obese adults by 15 percent by 2015.