Rhonda M. Smith – OpEd
Executive Director of California Black Health Network
As California continues leading the nation in the fight to advance racial justice, it’s essential to recognize that we still have a long way to go, including working to build a more equitable health care system. It’s a fact that, while Black Americans are among the most likely to say they prioritize their health, institutional barriers in the health care system often prevent us from receiving the care needed and deserved.
As Black women continue to recover from the health and economic impacts of the pandemic, it is important to acknowledge the gaps in care we face. Black Americans in general have the lowest life expectancy compared to other racial and ethnic groups, which reveals an imbalance in receiving quality, equitable care. In addition, social determinants of health factors for some communities such as income inequality, lack of access to transportation, and environmental pollution contribute to poor health outcomes. Oftentimes, there are policies that reinforce and exacerbate these inequities, which is why where people live is one of the most significant components of overall health outcomes and life expectancy. In fact, up to 60% of our health issues are determined solely by our zip code.
Despite the increase in access to healthcare coverage and advances in modern medicine, there are still significant gaps in health outcomes in maternal health, mental health, diabetes, and cancer for Black Americans compared to White Americans.
The first step in closing the gap in health disparities is access to care. The uninsured rate for Black and African Americans in California has decreased dramatically since Covered California began offering coverage, from 12.4% in 2013 to 4% in 2021. Despite these gains, many low-income Californians are still struggling to afford medical care, with more than half reportedly delaying treatment because of cost.
According to a study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and California Health Care Foundation, almost a third of state residents making under 200 percent of the federal poverty level—about $49,000 annually for a family of four—said they had difficulty paying medical bills in the past year. The study also reported that affordability barriers prompted 55% of low-income people or their household family members to delay getting medical treatment such as check-ups, tests, prescriptions, and mental health care, compared to 36% of higher-income residents and their family members reporting a delay in care.
As the 2023 legislative session begins its work, it is imperative that our legislators commit to real solutions that will reduce healthcare costs for all our vulnerable communities. Targeting the cost of prescription drugs is one part of the equation.
Unfortunately, in recent years, our policymakers in Sacramento have considered many legislative bills that would make it more expensive for unions and employers to offer prescription drug benefits to their members and employees – increasing costs not only for job-creators, but for patients and their families.
There’s no question that affordability is a top priority for Californians. In fact, a recent survey found that 66 percent of Californians said they’d rather see increased new government regulations targeting drug companies compared to just 14 percent who would favor restrictions on pharmacy benefits managers.
Californians are clear. They want future legislation and this administration to address skyrocketing prescription drug prices by going right to the root of the problem: capitalism in healthcare. Legislators must also ensure that all patients continue to receive access to affordable prescription medications that Californians depend on to manage their health and prevent disease progression.
It’s time to focus on making progress for California’s most vulnerable communities. This starts with a commitment to moving toward more equitable health outcomes. To achieve this, lawmakers must continue working to lower healthcare costs and fight back against escalating drug prices and healthcare costs that create barriers for these communities to access the care they need to stay healthy and live long, prosperous lives.