Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist Introduces Legislation To Address U.S. Racial Health Disparities
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) on Thursday unveiled the Closing the Health Care Gap Act, which they said aims to address racial health disparities, the Washington Times reports. Frist said the legislation would improve health education and research opportunities for minorities, increase access to quality health care, improve racial health disparities data collection, allow for more public-private partnerships on the issue and make permanent the HHS Office of Minority Health. He added, "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 why, and as majority leader I am going to address them." Landrieu said lawmakers first must ensure that health care funding is "fairly distributed and in some areas targeted to specific populations that have been ignored" and also must seek to "close the gap on these specific diseases that seem to take the lives of minorities -- diabetes, heart disease -- at a much higher rate." Frist said he would make the legislation "one if his highest priorities" this year, adding that he intends to bring it to the Senate floor this month. The cost of the legislation is unknown, according to the Times. Frist said, "I can only say that we've seen when we prioritize initiatives ... we find the money to fund them, and this is my highest priority" (DeBose, Washington Times, 2/13).
NPR's "Talk of the Nation" Thursday included a discussion of HHS' rewriting of the first annual National Health Care Disparities Report and the legislation introduced by Frist, Cochran and Landrieu. Guests on the program included Frist; Dr. Joseph Betancourt, a senior scientist with the Institute for Health Policy at Massachusetts General Hospital and director of multicultural education for the hospital's multicultural affairs office; Dr. Jack Geiger, a professor emeritus of community medicine at City University of New York Medical School and past president of Physicians for Human Rights; and Dr. Vickie Mays, professor of clinical psychology and health services at University of California-Los Angeles and the director of UCLA's Center for Research, Education, Training and Strategic Communication on Minority Health Disparities (Neary, "Talk of the Nation," NPR, 2/12). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.
The following summarizes news coverage of other health issues addressed by Congress on Thursday.
- Family Opportunity Act: Senate Finance Committee Chair Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, on Thursday asked Frist to bring up legislation that would permit certain families with children who have disabilities to purchase health coverage under Medicaid. Eligible families must have annual incomes below 250% of the federal poverty level, higher than the eligibility limit for Medicaid (CongressDaily, 2/13).
- Medicaid: The Finance Committee is investigating arrangements between states and consultants that try to draw additional Medicaid funds from the federal government, AP/CongressDaily reports. The committee aims to determine whether the consultants, which are paid a percentage of the additional federal funds they generate, are "inflating claims to boost their fees," according to AP/CongressDaily. In a letter to HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson, Grassley wrote, "Not surprisingly, some consulting firms appear to be devising creative billing practices, which under scrutiny appear to be improper or potentially fraudulent" (AP/CongressDaily, 2/13).