Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist yesterday said one of his highest priorities this year would be passing legislation designed to eliminate racial disparities in health care.
Mr. Frist, Tennessee Republican, who also is a doctor, said the Closing the Health Care Gap Act would look to improve the overall quality of health care in several areas. He said the bill, if passed as submitted, will enhance education and research opportunities for minorities, increase access to quality care, improve data collection, create more opportunities for public-private partnerships and make permanent the Office of Minority Health at the Health and Human Services Department.
Flanked by bill co-sponsor Sen. Thad Cochran, Mississippi Republican, and several black and Hispanic doctors, Mr. Frist said he timed the bill’s introduction to come on the heels of the recently passed Medicare prescription-drug bill. He said he hoped to bring the bill to the Senate floor this month.
Mr. Frist said the bill does not have a definite price tag yet. He wouldn’t identify a funding source, nor would he give a timeline for its passage.
“I can only say that we’ve seen when we prioritize initiatives — like Medicare prescription drugs, global HIV/AIDS — we find the money to fund them, and this is my highest priority,” Mr. Frist said.
“We know that African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans die younger and suffer from heart disease, diabetes and HIV/AIDS at higher rates than everyone else. These numbers are unacceptable. We are beginning to understand the why, and as majority leader, I am going to address them,” Mr. Frist said.
Mr. Cochran said the bill could be problematic to Senate members, who will be forced to make serious budget cuts this year. He wanted to squelch any criticism before it began.
“We will identify the programs and provide the maximum funding available under our budget,” Mr. Cochran said.
“There are programs like the Jackson, [Missco-sponsor, said there are essentially two health care challenges that the bill must address.
“One, we need to make sure the money we’re spending is fairly distributed and in some areas targeted to specific populations that have been ignored. And two, we have to close the gap on these specific diseases that seem to take the lives of minorities — diabetes, heart disease — at a much higher rate,” Mrs. Landrieu said.
In 2000, the Senate passed the Minority Health and Health Disparities Research Education Act, which funded numerous studies and data-mining programs to determine what factors contribute to blacks, Hispanics and American Indians dying from diseases that rarely are fatal for whites and Asians.
“We have found that 90 percent of these diseases that we [Hispanics and blacks] die from are preventable,” said Dr. Rene Rodriguez, president of Interamerican College of Physicians and Surgeons, the largest and oldest national Hispanic medical society in the United States.
Mr. Rodriguez said the level of funding should not be the main concern.
“The more money you put in on the front end, the more savings you get on the back end, because with the majority of these problems we are wasting money on treating when we could be eliminating them altogether,” he said.