The Booker Family Health Clinic, one of 60 clinics that make up the Access Community Health Network in the Chicago area.
The Booker Family Health Clinic, one of 60 clinics that make up the Access Community Health Network in the Chicago area. Cheryl Corley/NPR
Death rates for cancer, stroke and diabetes are solemn warning notices for African-Americans, who suffer from those and other diseases at a higher rate than do whites.
So when some members of Congress called the new health care overhaul the Civil Rights Act of the 21st century, many African-Americans agreed.
There's a debate about whether the coming changes will actually ease the health disparities that black Americans face.
Views From The Clinic
On a recent day at the Booker Community Health Center on Chicago's South Side, the morning rush is over — but in the exam rooms, doctors are still working with patients.
The waiting room holds several people, mostly young mothers and children. The center is part of the Access Community Health Network, one of about 60 clinics in low-income or minority neighborhoods in the Chicago area.
This is where Laura Walls, an unemployed actress, comes to put an end to what she calls a generational curse. She's worked with her physician, Dr. Tracy Larkins Muhammad, to prevent her borderline diabetes from morphing into the real thing.
Laura Walls (left) is an unemployed actress who lost her health insurance after an injury during a stage production. She credits Dr. Tracy Muhammad with helping her through several medical problems, including borderline diabetes.
Laura Walls (left) is an unemployed actress who lost her health insurance after an injury during a stage production. She credits Dr. Tracy Muhammad with helping her through several medical problems, including borderline diabetes. Cheryl Corley/NPR
"My mother died from high blood pressure," Walls says. "My mother died from diabetes. My uncle from high blood pressure. My grandparents ..."
Hypertension has also been a problem for Marvin Harris, 41, a psychotherapist whose employer provides health insurance.
A couple of years ago, Harris starting coming to the clinic when he was out of work; his blood pressure had reached alarming levels. He'd tried to buy health insurance on his own, with no luck. Harris says insurance companies turned him down because of his pre-existing health problems.
He's thankful that under the new law, pre-existing conditions won't be a barrier.
"In the event that I stumble upon a situation like I did in the past where I lost my job, it will be great for me" to get coverage, Harris says. "I'll actually be able to get some insurance and not have to wait until I get another full-time job."
Nationally, about 1 in 5 black Americans has no health insurance. That's likely to change — up to 32 million people are expected to have access to health coverage because of the new law. More poor people will be eligible for Medicaid, and funding will also be increased for community health centers.
Seeking An End To Disparities
At the Booker clinic, about 1 of every 3 patients lacks health insurance. The doctors here say they know that many other residents without insurance just don't come by.
They still might not come in the future, but with a possibility of increased coverage, the doctors say they could tackle chronic diseases and have more time to offer preventive care.
"You know, for many people in our community, they don't know what wellness feels like, says Donna Thompson, CEO of the Access Network.
Thompson says health disparities for African-Americans are vast: More blacks suffer from high blood pressure than whites; infant mortality is nearly 2.5 times higher; deaths from breast and prostate cancer are disproportionately higher; and diabetes is more prevalent. Lack of health coverage is a major factor, she says.
"One of the things I've seen as part of the health disparities," Thompson says, "is that for many people, they think, 'If my grandmother died from the results of diabetes, that's probably going to be my legacy also.' So, there's a huge opportunity with the health care bill" to persuade people to actually get treatment.
And that's part of the reason activists and others consider the health care legislation a civil rights victory. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL) held a recent forum to explain the health care bill's benefits. Turning to his constituents as if they were in a church of true believers, Jackson said that while many of the civil rights milestones came before his birth, he's glad to be alive for President Obama's health care victory.
"I was there in spirit to witness a president who with the stroke of his pen freed more people from 'health carelessness' than Abraham Lincoln freed from slavery," Jackson said as the crowd applauded.
Holdouts On The New Health Plan
Dr. Claudia Fegan (right), a past president of Physicians for a National Health Program, with patient Tracy Carwell in a Chicago exam room. Fegan supports creating a single-payer national health insurance plan.
Dr. Claudia Fegan (right), a past president of Physicians for a National Health Program, with patient Tracy Carwell in a Chicago exam room. Fegan supports creating a single-payer national health insurance plan. Cheryl Corley/NPR
Not everyone shares Jackson's view of the bill. Dr. Claudia Fegan works at Woodlawn Health Center, a public clinic on Chicago's South Side.
A past president of Physicians for a National Health Program, Fegan says she's proud of President Obama, too — in fact, she doesn't live far from his Chicago home. But she says the health measure Obama championed pains her.
Fegan calls it political sausage and a false promise — especially since current government estimates suggest that despite the plan, millions of people will still lack health insurance. And that means the system still won't be fair, she says.
"There'll be people who have private insurance, there'll be people who have the public program, and there'll be people who are uninsured," says Fegan. "As long as we have that multitiered system, we will perpetuate the disparities which people of color suffer more than anyone else."
It would have been best, she says, if the Democrats had pushed for an expansion of Medicare.