STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

The health care law that President Obama signed has raised both hopes and questions among African-Americans. They get diseases like diabetes and breast cancer disproportionately. And when the president signed that health bill, some predicted it would give black Americans a better chance. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports on what might change.

CHERYL CORLEY: 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.

Unidentified Woman: What type of (unintelligible)...

CORLEY: In the waiting room there are several people, including young mothers and children. The center is part of the access community health network, one of about 60 clinics located in low income or minority neighborhoods in and around Chicago.

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 doctor to prevent her borderline diabetes from morphing into the real thing.

LAURA WELLS: My mother died from high blood pressure. My mother died from diabetes; my uncle from high blood pressure, my grandparents...

CORLEY: Fierce hypertension has also been a problem for 41-year-old Marvin Harris, a psychotherapist whose employer provides health insurance. A couple of years ago, Harris starting coming to the clinic when he was out of work. He tried, but didn't have any luck buying health insurance on his own. Harris says insurance companies turned him down because of his pre-existing health problems. And he's thankful that under the new law pre-existing conditions won't be a barrier.

HARRIS: 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. I'll be able to actually get some insurance and not have to wait until I get another full-time job.

CORLEY: Nationally, about one in five black Americans has no health insurance. That's likely to change since up to 32 million people are expected to have access to health coverage because of the reforms. Also, more poor people will be eligible for Medicaid, and funding will also be increased for community health centers.

Woman: Laura Wall(ph).

CORLEY: At the Booker Clinic, about one of every three patients lacks health insurance. The doctors here say they know plenty of other residents without insurance just don't come by. They still might not come in the future, but with a possibility of increased coverage for blacks and Latinos, the doctors say they could tackle chronic diseases and have more time to offer preventive care.

DONNA THOMPSON: You know, for many people in our community, they don't know what wellness really feels like.

CORLEY: Donna Thompson, the CEO of the Access Network, says health disparities for African-Americans are vast: More blacks suffer from high blood pressure than whites; infant mortality is nearly two and a half times higher; deaths from breast and prostate cancer are also disproportionately higher; and diabetes is more prevalent among African-Americans. Lack of health coverage is a major factor.

THOMPSON: One of the things I've seen as part of the health disparities 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. And so there's a huge opportunity with the health care bill to get people into a health care home.

CORLEY: And that's part of the reason why activists and others consider the health care legislation a civil rights victory.

Illinois Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. held a recent forum to explain the benefits of the health care bill. Turning to his constituents, as if they were in a church of true believers, Jackson said, many of the civil rights milestones came before his birth, but he was glad to be alive for President Obama's health care victory.

JESSE JACKSON: I was there in spirit to witness the president...

Unidentified Woman #2: Yes.

JACKSON: ...who, with the stroke of his pen, freed more people from health carelessness than Abraham Lincoln freed from slavery.

Woman #2: Yes.

CORLEY: Not everyone shares Jackson's view of the Health Care Law. Dr. Claudia Fegan works at a public clinic on Chicago's South Side. She's the past president of Physicians for a National Health Program. Fegan says she's proud of Barack Obama, too. She doesn't live far from the president's Chicago home. But she says the health measure that Obama championed pained her.

Fegan calls it political sausage and a false promise - especially since current government estimates suggest that despite the plan, millions of people still won't be covered by health insurance.

CLAUDIA FEGAN: This will continue to promote the multi-tiered system. 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. And as long as we have that multi-tiered system, we will perpetuate the disparities which people of color suffer more than anyone else.

CORLEY: Fegan says it would have been best to push for an expansion of Medicare. Proponents, like members of the Congressional Black Caucus, agree the country's new Health Care Law is not perfect, but say it will make health care more accessible.

Meanwhile, Health and Human Services Secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, says her office is working on a national plan to reduce health care disparities.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

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