Minority Health Month: Making progress on health disparities


Half a century ago, our nation was in the midst of a Civil Rights revolution. Over these last few years, we’ve reached several milestones: the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Dr. King’s transformative “I Have a Dream” speech, and the historic march from Selma to Montgomery.

As we commemorate these events, we feel the weight of their expectations. We see the path that has moved us closer to justice and equality, but we also see the stumbling blocks and shortcomings along the way. April is National Minority Health Month, and while health equity is always a top priority at the Department of Health and Human Services, it’s an important time to highlight how far we’ve come, and how far we have left to go.

Today, African-Americans have the highest mortality rate of any racial and ethnic group for cancer generally and for most major cancers individually. Latino communities also suffer from disproportionate rates of illness, like cervical cancer. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are more likely to have hepatitis B than non-Hispanic whites, and African-Americans, Latinos, and American Indians are all more likely to have diabetes.

The statistic that exacerbates all of these health realities is that communities of color are more likely to be uninsured than white Americans.

Working to close these racial and ethnic disparities is some of the most important work we do at HHS, and key to that work is giving more people of color access to quality, affordable health insurance.

Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, all Americans have new options for getting covered. During our last Open Enrollment, nearly 11.7 million Americans signed up or were re-enrolled through the Health Insurance Marketplace. And since several of the Affordable Care Act’s coverage provisions began to take effect in 2010, about 16.4 million uninsured people have gained health coverage. That’s the largest reduction of uninsured adults in four decades.

For African-Americans, the uninsured rate has declined 9.2 percentage points, while the Latino community has seen a 12.3 percentage point drop.

We are also making progress against many racial health disparities. For instance, since 2012, the disparities in some important vaccination rates have been substantially reduced for African-Americans, Latinos, and American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, American families across the country have the financial and health security that comes with coverage. They can rest a little easier at night, knowing a sickness or an accident won’t mean a lifetime of insurmountable debt.

But we also know that insurance alone won’t bridge this gap.

Many of these newly insured are navigating coverage for the first time in their lives, and it can be confusing. They may not think to seek out the preventive services that can detect their cancer early or help keep their diabetes under control. They also may not realize that many of these kinds of services are offered at no out-of-pocket cost.

If we want health equity, we need to make health literacy a priority. That’s why HHS has launched a campaign to bring people from “Coverage to Care,” to connect people to the care they need; teach them how to understand their benefits and their bills; and give them the tools to make healthier decisions.

Racial and ethnic disparities in healthcare are complex and there is no one silver bullet. That’s why we will continue to work in every area of our healthcare system to find and eliminate racial and ethnic barriers to good health.

We are committed to building a better health care system for everyone. Dr. King said, “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability,” and we know it will take work to give America the health care system it deserves. But we are committed to that goal and we will deliver for the people we serve.

Our nation has come too far to turn back.

Sylvia Mathews Burwell is the U.S. Secretary of Health & Human Services (HHS)