Minority Groups Raise Voices on Reform

By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 8, 2009

In the debate over revamping the health-care system, there are the doctors and nurses, the insurance companies and industry lobbyists, and the patients with preexisting conditions, among others. With so many interest groups, the conversation is loud and getting louder.

Missing from the noise so far: the voices of minorities, who are disproportionately represented among the poor and uninsured and could benefit the most from reform, and who are more likely than others to have chronic illnesses such as diabetes. They are symbols of the failures of the current system.

Starting this week, however, with a new campaign and new ads, their voices will become a larger part of the debate.

Leaders of black and Latino advocacy groups say that because so many of their members favor health-care reform, they are becoming more forceful as the final drafts near, even though they are reluctant to make race and ethnicity a central issue.

"There are some people who would like to defeat this bill by tagging it to the issue of race," said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

Janet MurguĂ­a, president of the National Council of La Raza, agreed. "I tend to think that we could win this on the merits and the facts. I don't think we have to resort to race issues to get a common-sense and sound health-care reform," she said. "I think there are people who want to take it in that direction."

Supporters of health-care reform understand that a focus on racial disparities in the system could be a political loser, said Darrell M. West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. "The White House seems to have shifted from the moral message to an economic one," he said. "Race always is a sensitive topic, and . . . there's always a risk of misunderstanding and a backlash against it."

According to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, there is a wide racial gap in Americans' views on health-care reform, with minorities largely in favor of changing the system and supportive of President Obama's handling of it. Fewer than four in 10 white people, however, share those views, though much of this divide is probably because of partisan differences.

Those poll numbers are a reflection of the place that race has had in the debate, said Anne Kim, director of economic programs at Third Way, a liberal policy think tank. Some of the traditional reasons Democrats have given for reforming health care, such as addressing racial disparities, "have been drowned out" by debate over issues such as a public option, Kim said. "There was just no bandwidth for those kinds of issues to be on the table."

But as the debate reaches its next phase, the minority advocacy groups are finding their place in the conversation, using their voter-turnout operations to get supporters to pressure members of Congress as a vote nears, said NAACP President Benjamin Jealous. "We're reminding [them] that we are here and that we will be at the polls next fall."

In recent weeks, his group has been highlighting the fact that blacks and Latinos are more likely to be uninsured than whites. According to 2008 census figures, 10.8 percent of whites are uninsured, compared with 30.7 percent of Hispanics, 17.6 percent of Asians and 19.1 percent of blacks.

On Thursday night, the NAACP is launching the 880 Campaign, whose name refers to "the deaths of 880,000 people of color that would have been prevented if real health-care reform had been enacted in the last decade," with a town hall meeting in Washington. The figure is from a study of health-care coverage in the 1990s by the American Journal of Public Health, Jealous said.

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