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Coalition targets disparities in minority health care: Group enlists CEOs to help it develop plan of action

October 3, 2005

Black people are nearly twice as likely to have diabetes than white people, less likely to engage in leisure activity and, on average, die five years earlier.

Those statistics from the Centers for Disease Control provide motivation for a local consortium that wants to improve health care for minorities. Known as the CEO Health Disparities Roundtable, the year-old group has moved from setting objectives to developing a plan of action.

The plan is aimed at reducing health care disparities among blacks, as well as Hispanics, and will begin by tackling three areas: obesity, mental illness and tobacco usage.

The next three months of the effort will be spent identifying strategies to reduce the disparity in those areas and raising money for supporting programs. A rollout of the plan is slated for January.

The Indiana Minority Health Coalition is leading the initiative. Although IHMC has existed since 1993, President and CEO Nancy Jewell said the coalition so far has been unsuccessful in reducing health disparities among minorities. She thinks the CEO Health Disparities Roundtable can help change that.

"We didn't have corporate America in partnership," Jewell said, "and we never had all of the CEOs who directly or indirectly impact disparities at the same table. We thought this would be a unique opportunity."

So far, assisting corporations such as Eli Lilly and Co. and Anthem Inc. are pitching in funds. The group also plans to pursue state and federal dollars.

Jewell; Sam Odle, president and CEO of Methodist Hospital; William Mays, CEO of Mays Chemical Co. Inc.; and Rep. William Crawford, D-Indianapolis, are leading the charge by co-chairing the roundtable. Besides Odle, local hospital presidents such as Anita Harden of Community Hospital East and Patricia Maryland of St. Vincent Indianapolis Hospital are involved.

Ideas abound

While details are being hammered out, one objective to combat obesity among youths involves working with school systems to ban the sale of soda and ensure vending machines have healthful choices.

At a higher level, the Marion County Health Department will partner with the American Public Health Association in Washington, D.C., and the state chapter to introduce community programs.

Dr. Virginia Caine, executive director of the county health department, is chairing the campaign to fight obesity. She said the APHA will provide community forums and technical assistance to county health departments throughout the state.

Another area will develop a template for an effective smoking-cessation program that can be used by several organizations. Other ideas include having community partners take the lead in establishing smoke-free policies, and proposing to the Legislature an increase in the cigarette tax.

Several recommendations are being considered to improve treatment of mental illness among minorities.

An overall message espousing the benefits of good health might be administered through the state's Office of Medicaid Policy and Planning under the Family and Social Services Administration.

Roughly 40,000 Hoosiers are on Medicaid, in which the state spends $1.4 billion annually, Crawford said. Promoting positive health habits to that population, and prodding them to seek medical advice more often, might save taxpayers money.

A CDC study found more minorities than whites reported being in fair or poor health but declined to visit a doctor due to the cost. Blacks also are less likely to have health insurance and, likewise, receive lower health care benefits throughout their lifetimes.

The success of the disparities initiative mostly will be measured from data collected in the next few years through the State Board of Health, Crawford said.

"We're only a year into this," he said, "but it's been a fruitful year. We're definitely wanting to get more people involved."

National audience

One way the roundtable is doing that is by taking its message to a broader audience.

In November of last year, during the IMHC's annual meeting in which Rev. Jesse Jackson was a guest, some of those involved in the initiative took advantage of his presence to seek networking opportunities.

Dr. Garth Graham, assistant secretary for minority health at the Office of Minority Health, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, visited Indianapolis during the past Indiana Black Expo.

Graham accompanied President Bush as he attended a breakfast to learn about the disparities effort. Graham told members he is interested in working with them to leverage federal money to support the program, Jewell said.

Crawford traveled to Washington, D.C., in late September to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank that explores areas of concern for blacks. There, he presented the Indiana model as a framework for other states to emulate.

A fund-raiser benefiting the initiative is set for 6 p.m. Nov. 15 at the Marriott Downtown. Tabbed "Laughter is the Best Medicine," the event will feature comedian Sinbad. Mays said more than $100,000 in silent-auction items have been donated so far.

"Health disparities are nothing new with minorities; we've known that for quite some time," Mays said. "But we wanted to do something more than just study health disparities. So it was a natural to bring business into the picture."

Nationally, the push to reduce health disparities among minorities began in 2000, when the American Public Health Association issued a call to the nation to take action. The same year, Health and Human Services launched its 10-year public health agenda, Healthy People 2010, which addressed health disparities.
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