Improving America's health care system to eliminate what are seen as inequities and disparities between blacks and whites has been urged by civil rights advocates and health care officials.
"America can no longer afford, in economic or human terms, to delay further its efforts to reform its present unjust health care system," Irene Jillson-Boostrom, president of Policy Research Inc. in Clarksville, a private organization that studies health care and related policies, said yesterday.
"The government has long been aware of the inequities of this system but has taken scant action to ensure that the right of access to health care it supports for populations of other countries is enjoyed by its own citizens," she said.
Jillson-Boostrom was one of six speakers at the opening of a conference on "An African-American Health Care Agenda: Strategies for Reforming and Unjust System." The parley drew several hundred people, some from as far away as Washington state and Quebec, to the meeting at the BWI Airport Marriott.
Improving access to health care of poor blacks, in particular, is a priority, they said.
The conference, which ends tomorrow, is being sponsored by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health, and the Institute on Health Care for the Poor and Underserved at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn.
Suezanne Orr, associate professor at Hopkins, told the group that "national data indicate that blacks have a greater risk of dying from almost all major causes of mortality, have a shorter life expectancy and make less use of health care than whites."
These problems have been around for the past 40 years, she said, and indicate "a real need for new programs and new policies toimprove health status and access to health care among blacks."
Before it ends, the conference is expected to develop strategies for what was described as "a health care crisis for blacks."
Elaine Jones, deputy director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said these strategies could take the form of public education campaigns or backing legislation or bringing lawsuits.
The Legal Defense Fund approach, another speaker said, will be to define health care as a civil right, bringing a series of legal actions and using the courts to gain access for blacks to quality care.
By examining important disadvantages faced by poor blacks in health and access to health care, "we can better focus upon the types of solutions needed," said Orr.
The differential in mortality risk between black Americans and whites for acquired immune deficiency syndrome is especially notable among women, she said. More than one-half of all AIDS cases in women and children have occurred among blacks.
Another major health problem that affects black children is elevated blood lead levels. Black children are also significantly more likely to have blood lead values at higher levels than white children.
"This is extremely important," Orr said, "since recent research has shown that even moderately elevated blood leads levels are associated with lifelong cognitive and neurologic damage."