As a nation, we must continue to prioritize high-quality health care for every American, regardless of age, race, or socioeconomic status. This takes on an acute importance when we consider disease prevention and management in an era of high rates of chronic illnesses such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease. From the checkups we get as children to the prescription medicines that help us stay healthy throughout our lives, there can never be any wavering on our commitment to every citizen’s health and well-being.
For minority communities, the stakes have never been higher. According to the most recent report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Latinos and African-Americans have health outcomes that are 30 to 40 percent poorer than white Americans. For African Americans, in particular, the stark reality is that a host of chronic diseases are more prevalent and are shortening more lives than is the case among their Caucasian counterparts.
That’s why policymaking in the health care sphere has to move in a direction that closes this health outcomes gap, and takes great care not to make these disparities even worse. We’ve seen some positives in this respect through the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, expansion of community-based education and awareness initiatives, and ongoing medical advances.
We could take giant steps backward, however, if Congress moves ahead with the idea of permitting the importation of prescription medicines from other countries. If this happens, the United States government will actually be promoting the use of counterfeit and unsafe medications from China, Mexico, Pakistan and other parts of the world in which our Food and Drug Administration has zero oversight over how these products are produced or regulated. And these countries are already in the maelstrom of a global counterfeit drug crisis that is rapidly worsening.
Moving ahead with importation legislation would be a devastating blow to the patients we treat. If we open our borders to fake and potentially dangerous pharmaceuticals, we don’t know where they might turn up. Given the fact, though, that African-Americans and Latinos have a greater incidence rate of the illnesses like diabetes and cardiovascular disease that require medications, the odds are greater that they will be consuming medicines that are either lacking the necessary active ingredients or have chemicals that could further shorten their lives. Whatever the imagined benefits of drug importation, the risks are far too great.
This will also undermine the efforts so many of us in health care are making to convince more members of minority communities to come see their doctors for regular examinations and treatments. We need to reinforce trust between medical professionals and patients. We need to convince the men and women in our neighborhoods to be more actively engaged in their own health and well-being. If dangerous counterfeit medicines find their way into circulation in this country and result in serious health consequences, we will be inadvertently fortifying an invisible barrier between physicians and pharmacies and the communities we need to be helping.
No doubt, those who would allow importation of drugs from foreign sources have the best of intentions. Again, though, whatever the benefits are – and any cost savings are strictly theoretical, not guaranteed – they aren’t worth the possible health problems that could result. And, anyway, we need broader health system improvements, not just a quick fix on pharmaceuticals. If Congress really wants to improve health care for all Americans, then move forward on making care more accessible for all citizens regardless of socioeconomic status and address the affordability of all aspects of health care, not just what happens at the pharmacy counter. We can and must move forward without taking risky steps in a potentially catastrophic direction.
Garfield Clunie is chairman of the board of the National Medical Association. Richard Williams is the organization’s president.
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