Too many Americans are not able to achieve their full health potential as disparities in health care persist. Racial and ethnic minorities and other underserved populations face higher rates of disease, fewer treatment options and reduced access to care. They are also less likely to have health insurance than the population as a whole.
An inclusive health and human services system treats people equitably and creates conditions in which all people can achieve optimal health. This is a fundamental gauge of an advanced, educated and economically strong society. However, until we realize that vision, our nation as a whole will continue to suffer. Now is the time to advance health equity.
We're at a crossroads in our history. The Affordable Care Act provides one of the most important levers by which we can advance that vision. The law places a new focus on wellness and prevention and improves access to primary care – a paradigm shift for our current "sick care" delivery system. The cornerstone of the law, improving access to quality health care, will reduce health disparities by bringing down health care costs, investing in the health care of communities, and giving individuals and families more control over their own care.
Everyone should have access to high quality health care. Not all Americans have equal access to health care. For underserved, vulnerable populations, barriers to obtaining health care services continue. The Affordable Care Act makes preventive care, such as regular check-ups, cancer screenings and immunizations available at no cost to those who are eligible. The law also makes new investments in community health teams to manage chronic disease. Because minority communities experience higher rates of illness and death for chronic diseases, this commitment is essential to reducing health disparities. Additionally, the law increases funding for community health centers, which serve an estimated one in four low-income minorities. The new resources will enable health centers to double the number of patients they serve. Combined with investments made by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, it will also support 16,000 new primary care providers.
Everyone should receive health care that is respectful of their cultural beliefs and practices, and communication in a language that they understand. Nearly 61 million people speak a language other than English at home. Language barriers impact the ability of individuals to access health care and human services. Individuals with limited ability to read, speak, write or understand English are less likely to have a regular source of primary care. Today, 68 percent of medically underserved communities across the nation are in rural areas. Through our Advancing Effective Communication in Critical Access Hospitals Initiative, my office is working with critical access hospitals nationwide to ensure they provide comprehensive language services to individuals that speak little to no English in rural and isolated areas. Language assistance services are essential to meaningful access to quality health care. If providers and patients do not understand each other clearly, serious consequences can arise. By tailoring services to a patient's culture and primary language, health care providers can bring about positive health outcomes for diverse populations. Moreover, the law expands initiatives to increase racial and ethnic diversity in the health care professions and strengthens cultural competency training for all health care providers.
Everyone has a right to protection from insurance discrimination. In the past, insurance companies could search for an error, or other technical mistake, on a customer's application and use this error to deny payment for services when he or she got sick, and refuse to sell coverage or renew policies because of an individual's pre-existing conditions. The law bans such practices, so people who have been sick can't be excluded from coverage or charged higher premiums. Women will no longer have to pay higher premiums because of their gender. Additionally, new funding will be available to collect information on how women and racial and ethnic minorities experience the health care system, leading to improvements that will benefit these groups.
Lastly, everyone has the right to the security of knowing their health information is safe and sound. As the agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that ensures that the privacy practices of several million heath care providers, plans, and clearinghouses adhere to Federal health information and privacy laws, my office, the Office for Civil Rights, works tirelessly to enforce the laws which safeguard the privacy and security of health information. This fall, when enrollment in the Health Insurance Marketplace begins, millions of people will be able to purchase affordable health insurance and gain access to a new health care delivery system centered on coordination and continuity of care –many for the first time. This influx of individuals into the health care system will not only improve access to care, but will allow consumers to take charge of their health and manage their care in concert with their providers. For instance, much like obtaining a copy of one's credit report, individuals have rights over their health information, including the right to get a copy of their medical record, make sure it's correct and know who has seen it. Studies have shown that consumers pay more attention to and become more engaged in their health care when they have access to their own medical information. We will work to make certain that health insurers, health care and human service providers understand and adhere to the health information privacy and patient safety confidentiality laws that they must follow. Additionally, we will continue our outreach efforts to inform consumers about their privacy rights. Increased access, equity of care and patient confidence are major drivers in reducing disparities.
Learn more about patients' rights and how the Affordable Health Care Act puts consumers back in charge of their health care, visit http://www.healthcare.gov/law/features/rights/.
To learn more about the Office for Civil Rights and our work to help protect individuals from discrimination and ensure the privacy of health information, visit us at: http://www.hhs.gov/ocr/.
Leon Rodriguez is the Director of the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
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Leon Rodriguez is the Director of the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. From January 2010 to September 2011, he was Chief of Staff and Deputy Assistant Attorney General at the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. From May 2007 to January 2010, he served as the County Attorney for Montgomery County, MD. He is a former shareholder in the Health Law department at Ober, Kaler, Grimes & Shriver. For 13 years prior to entering private practice, he served as a federal and state prosecutor. He is a graduate of Brown University and Boston College Law School.