LARGO — Congressmen Steny Hoyer (D-05) and Anthony Brown (D-04) held a roundtable discussion on health care disparities among minorities in Maryland, particularly Prince George’s County, and improvements that can be made in the future on June 14.
The discussion was part of Health Care for All Americans Weekend, where Democrats and participating organizations around the country held similar conversations from June 14-16 to discuss the work being done in Congress to lower health care costs.
In addition to the congressmen, other state leaders, health professionals and community stakeholders from Prince George’s, Charles and Calvert Counties participated in the meeting. Participants included Senator Melanie Griffith (D-25) and Executive Director of the District Heights Family and Youth Services Bureau Beverly Sargent.
The Affordable Care Act (ACA), passed in 2010 under the Obama Administration, operates intending to provide affordable quality care to every American, Hoyer said. While the ACA has made great strides in ensuring that more citizens have health coverage, one of the “most persistent and difficult health challenges we face is the lingering disparity in terms of access and outcomes for minorities,” he said.
“African Americans, Hispanic Americans and Native Americans have worse health care outcomes than the population as a whole on average, and we need to do something about that,” Hoyer said. “Of course, one of the ways to do that is to make sure they get equal access and affordability to quality health care.”
According to Hoyer, before the ACA was passed, about 27% of African Americans in Maryland were uninsured. Now that number has been reduced to 15%. But while some progress has been made, there is still more that we can do, he said.
In Prince George’s County, only 60% of Hispanic adults have health care coverage compared to 87% of residents overall in 2019, Hoyer said. Health disparities are much more apparent among African American and Hispanic people, as African Americans have higher rates of death from stroke, heart failure and diabetes. Additionally, they are eight times more likely to contract HIV and seven times more likely to die from AIDS.
Brown added that African American women are less likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer than white women, but they are three times more likely to die from the disease when they are diagnosed.
In order to tackle the disparities in health care faced throughout the state, the most important thing is to be “intentional” about it, Brown said.
“A rising tide lifts all boats, but that’s only if every boat is seaworthy and when it comes to the landscape of healthcare, there are some communities that are not as seaworthy when it comes to the quality of health and the health outcomes that we see in our community,” he said.
Some of the reasons for the disparities come from lack of access among the community and lack of awareness among health care professionals of the specific needs of different communities, Brown said.
The group discussed how lack of access comes from where people live as rural and lower income communities have a harder time finding good health care, education and health literacy, immigration status and lack of transportation.
There are three things that officials in Prince George’s County can address and overcome when it comes to relieving health care disparities among minorities, said Prince George’s County Acting Health Officer Ernest Carter. One of those is recognizing that health is not a one size fits all issue.
“We know we can achieve health equity by redistributing resources,” Carter said. “We can’t evenly just parse out resources, and we have to give resources connected to the need.”
Another thing is to understand that health is a shared responsibility, Carter continued. Everyone has to be able to recognize and understand those disparities do exist that comes, in part, from social determinants of health such as food insecurity, housing disparities and lack of transportation.
Finally, health has to be taken into account at an executive level where health is taken into account in all policy decisions, Carter said. For example, including safe biking and walking spaces in all development decisions.
Charles County Health Officer Suzan Lowrey described how socioeconomics are the most significant factors when it comes to health as it determines people’s level of access to healthy food and a healthy lifestyle. Collaboration between different agencies at the community level will be essential to tackling these issues, she said.
“In the end, all the policies and program changes are needed, but I think that there has to be just ongoing, persistent collaboration between all agencies including schools, social work, health, the sheriff’s office and everyone needs to share information,” Lowrey said.
Eliminating the disparities starts with acknowledging the state’s racial history, said Executive Director of the Regional and Primary Care Coalition Sharon Zalewski. These include slavery, segregation and the institutional racism that disadvantage certain communities to this day and affects implicit bias and the trust these minorities have in their leaders and health care providers.
However, Prince George’s County has great opportunities when it comes to further helping to bring access to all residents such as the all-payer system for hospitals, Kaiser Permanente’s investment in the Riverdale community along the Purple Line and the Health Care Action Coalition, whose work includes health needs assessments throughout the county, she said.
“We need to come in and work with the community leaders to figure out what these communities actually need and start new development around what they actually need.”