Racial Disparities in Health Take a Financial, Moral Toll

A new study by Thomas A. LaVeist (Professor in Health Policy and director of the Hopkins Center for Health Disparities Solutions at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health) and Darrell J. Gaskin (professor of health economics in the Department of African American Studies at the University of Maryland) conducted for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington-based think tank, found that:

between 2003 and 2006, 30.6 percent of medical care expenditures for African-Americans, Asians and Hispanics were excess costs that were the result of inequities in the health of these groups. Between 2003 and 2006, the combined direct and indirect cost of health disparities in the United States was $1.24 trillion (in 2008 inflation-adjusted dollars). This is more than the gross domestic product of India and equates to $309.3 billion annually lost to the economy.

This staggering financial toll is accompanied by a moral toll that is even more devastating.  As LaVeist and Gaskin note:

The large number of premature deaths among American racial and ethnic minority groups represents a substantial loss of human potential, a loss of talent and productivity that might otherwise have contributed to the betterment of society. By imposing a substantial burden on the economy, health disparities visit suffering on the entire society, not just the minorities who live sicker and die younger.

That, to my mind, is the central tragedy of racism – the loss of humanity, of human potential.   And, lest this spark another round of ‘it’s in the genes’ LaVeist and Gaskin go on to note:

There are some who believe that health disparities are due solely to genetic differences among racial groups or irresponsible behaviors among those who suffer higher rates of illness and death. However, this is not true. Health disparities are rooted in environmental and societal factors associated with poverty and discrimination. As the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation put it, health disparities have “more to do with your ZIP code than your genetic code.”

For all the people on this blog and in the wider public discourse who lament that we need to “do something” about ending racism and racial inequality, I would like to suggest that we do this: end racial disparities in health and see if that doesn’t go a long way toward eliminating other dimensions of inequality.