More than a change in health insurance coverage, health reform can improve access to care and ultimately lay the ground for prevention and wellness, according to U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, M.D., M.B.A., speaking at the annual convention of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) in San Diego in August.
Addressing more than 100 journalists and communications professionals at a lunchtime panel sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), the Surgeon General discussed her initiative focusing on prevention. She serves as chair of the newly-created National Prevention, Health Promotion, and Public Health Council, which was created by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. In that capacity, Benjamin is charged with developing a strategy for improving the health status of Americans and reducing the incidence of preventable illness and disability in the United States.
“The whole idea behind health reform is to make our country healthier, to move America from a sick care system to one based on prevention and wellness,” said Benjamin, a former trustee of the Foundation.
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act gives millions of previously uninsured Americans access to health care, which Benjamin maintains is an essential element of the Surgeon General’s prevention platform. “Health care access makes prevention possible.”
Benjamin was joined at the NABJ panel by Reed V. Tuckson, M.D., F.A.C.P., the chief physician for UnitedHealth Group, a leading U.S. health insurer. UnitedHealth Group is taking innovative steps to promote prevention and address persistent health disparities, with a focus on exercise for Black women.
“African American obesity rates are greater than 33 percent in 43 states,” Tuckson noted. “While African American women have the highest rates of obesity compared to other groups in the U.S., the stats don’t compel a prevention response,” he said, urging a greater focus on removing obstacles to exercise for this community as health reform is implemented.
“We know a lack of sufficient exercise is a contributing factor, but do we know why African American women have low exercise rates?” questioned Tuckson. “I asked this question at my hair salon where men and women go. The ladies told me they don’t want to ‘sweat their hair out.’”
Tuckson told the mostly African American audience that UnitedHealth Group is doing its part, sponsoring a competition for hairdressers to create “exercise-friendly hairstyles” designed to hold up under intense workouts. He said the Surgeon General was enlisted to serve as a judge at the event, held this summer in Atlanta and billed as the largest black hair show in the nation.
The panel’s moderator George Strait, assistant commissioner for public affairs with the Food and Drug Administration, noted that a provision in the health reform package elevates the National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities to “Institute” status and places offices of minority health within every major agency at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
A former ABC News correspondent and the first TV reporter to occupy a medical and science beat, Strait encouraged journalists to engage these offices when reporting on the health reform law.
“Ask each agency: What are they doing? What have they done? What is their strategy in dealing with health disparities and disease prevention,” Strait urged the audience.