Franken addresses healthcare disparities in Minnesota


On October 3, Senator Al Franken met with health providers and representatives of different Minnesota minority communities in an effort to address concerns on healthcare disparities while seeking input on the direction of legislation on universal healthcare. The group, which met at the Minneapolis Urban League, comprised people who work with African American, Native American, Asian, Latino/Chicano as well as the GLBT and refugee communities. 

Franken, who stressed on the need to pass a healthcare reform bill this year acknowledged that while the healthcare system and delivery in Minnesota is one of the best in the country, there are disparities in minority communities that should cause concern. Reports show that people of color in Minnesota are more likely to have chronic illness such as diabetes and cancer,  STDs and HIV/AIDS. They are also most likely to lack insurance.

Healthcare, said Franken, has to be comprehensive and not just address insurance coverage. He argued for a healthcare bill that would address healthy lifestyle choices and that would consider socio-economic factors that include: clean water and air, access to healthy foods, education on nutrition, mental health and recreation facilities in neighborhoods.

“The neighborhood you grow up in has a lot more to do with your health than does your doctor or health institution,” Franken said.

Throughout the hour and a half session it was clear that, through their work, the different community leaders and health practitioners agreed with Franken on addressing socio-economic factors. Many stressed mental healthcare, a segment of healthcare that some felt has largely been ignored in healthcare debate.

Mental health needs arise in minority populations for many of the same reasons that they do in the majority population. However, there are a few indicators like poverty, homelessness, discrimination, and taboos on speaking about mental healthcare that particularly exacerbate mental and other health conditions in communities of color. The Surgeon General’s office reports that African Americans are over-represented in high-need populations that are particularly at risk for mental illnesses. For example, African Americans make up about 40 percent of the homeless population. Refugee and asylee populations from war-torn countries also present mental health cases that are brought on by war trauma.

Patricia Walker, lauded as a leading doctor in immigrant healthcare, is the director of Global Health Pathway at the University of Minnesota. She argued that the state and the rest of the nation need to know and study global diseases, and urged Franken to press on other legislators to help frame the healthcare debate.

“Our community health clinics, because we are federally qualified, offer high quality services, but we are not getting adequate funding, ” said Stella Whitney West, the CEO of Northpoint Health and Wellness Center, lamenting the growing cost of healthcare and reduced funding from the federal government. Like most of the speakers at the roundtable, West argued for an assessment of economic disparities that tend to adversely affect health.

A contentious issue in the healthcare debate has been health coverage of undocumented workers. Franken, while agreeing that President Obama’s administration had put itself in a “dicey corner,” said that he is working toward finding a way to protect public health. Making a case for inclusion in the public healthcare debate, the Council of Chicano Latino Affairs urged Senator Franken to give leadership in providing options for undocumented immigrants because ignoring them would impact the public health of the larger community.

Patrick Rock of the Indian Health Board of Minneapolis said, “I am not advocating that we rob Peter to pay Paul, but it is important that different communities receive adequate funding to allow access to healthcare needs.” Rock, a physician, worried that some Native Americans feel that they’d get better healthcare in prison than they would outside.

Other issues discussed include: a push for minority employees in the healthcare sector, including those in leadership positions; prison reform; increase of community clinics, especially in rural communities; protection and inclusion of the GLBT community in legislation; creative ways that engage the public in health education; and comprehensive data collection and analysis.