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Companies Address Minority Health Gaps

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WASHINGTON, Nov 19, 2003 (United Press International via COMTEX) -- Major corporations are using their influence to close racial and ethnic gaps in healthcare in the hope of not only improving medical treatment of minorities, but also to minimize the high costs that come with inadequate care, a business roundtable said Wednesday.

The Washington Business Group on Health, a nonprofit organization representing employers around the country -- including Fortune 500 companies -- said racial disparities in health care are grossly overlooked in the American workplace and affects not only adults, but also children. Despite having adequate health coverage through their employers, research shows minorities often lack the same quality of care whites enjoy. Over time, these gaps in treatment can result in millions of dollars lost to companies if chronic conditions are left untreated.

Other companies represented included pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc., of New York City, as well as Coca-Cola of Atlanta, Kellogg Co., of Battle Creek, Mich., and Texas Instruments Inc., of Dallas.

"It's unacceptable in a nation like ours to have the health disparities we have seen," said Dr. Cristina Beato, assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

For example, according to WBGH, research shows American Indian, Alaskan natives, Latina and Pacific Islander women are less likely to be screened for breast and cervical cancer compared to white women. African-Americans, compared to whites, are two-to-four-times more likely to suffer a stroke, yet whites often receive more aggressive therapy for stroke than other populations.

Chronic conditions are major killers in this country and a big concern to corporate America. Beato said seven-of-10 Americans die of chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes every year. Heart disease, the number one killer of men and women and a major health threat to African-American and Hispanic populations, costs the country $150 billion, Beato said. Another $117 billion is spent each year on treating obesity and obesity-related problems, a major health concern to minorities who show an escalating obesity rate, Beato explained. Of the $1.4 trillion the nation spends on health care, she said, currently only 10 percent goes toward prevention.

Companies are now looking to implement prevention strategies in the work environment, such as exercise and screening programs. Coca-Cola, Kellogg Co. and Texas Instruments all said they're placing more emphasis on physical fitness and judicious eating through various in-house company programs.

Statistics show by 2008, 41.5 percent of the American workforce will be minority. Coca-Cola, Kellogg and Texas Instruments said diversity is greatly valued among their companies, which is why they also are promoting corporate outreach programs to educate employees about their health and well being. These programs are offered in a variety of languages, including Spanish, the second most common language spoken in the United States.

Corporations are also putting the pressure on insurers. When purchasing employee health plans, these companies are asking insurers about the diversity of their panels and medical staff to reduce cultural and language barriers between the insurer, the health care providers, and employees seeking treatment.

Lola Chriss, manager of total compensation and benefits, occupational health for Texas Instruments, said companies are persuading health plans to make disease management not just targeted toward treating a particular condition, but more customized and culturally sensitive to individual employees. "Make them tailored so they can have relevancy to each of our employees," Chriss said.

When patients, or employees, fall through the cracks of medical care, companies pay. "If they're not referred for appropriate testing at that time, we will pay for that," Chriss said. "We're just beginning to understand what the economic impact is. The cost impact and the potential impact is tremendous for us."

Research from HHS, the National Institutes of Health, and the American Medical Association show minorities can develop diseases at a different rate than Caucasians, explained Brian Smedley, senior program officer in the division of health sciences policy at the Institute of Medicine. Not only do minorities develop illness at a different pace, they often do not get to their doctor until the disease is more advanced, he said.

"Many patients of communities of color arrive to their doctors' offices late," Smedley said. "The health care playing field is not level. That kind of failure will result in increased costs...this affects all our pockets."

Such failures or gaps in treating racial groups can result in not only increased direct medical costs, such as hospital visits, but also indirect costs such as loss of productivity and absenteeism. Companies are discovering a healthy employee is a productive employee and the bottom line is that saves the company money.

"These are quantifiable costs that are real to employers, especially during this time of economic pressures," said Kathleen Donovan, vice president of human resources at Pfizer.

Beato said closing racial health care gaps benefits not only the employee, but also the employer. "It has a significant effect on your businesses too as more and more of your dollars are not being consumed by treating these conditions."


Katrina Woznicki covers health issues for UPI Science News. E-mail

Copyright 2003 by United Press International.

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