February 20, 2020 at 5:00 am ET
It is no secret that the No. 1 priority for meeting the needs of America’s minority communities is voting Donald Trump out of the White House in November. Less clear, however, is what the candidates running to replace him will do to right the wrongs of this administration.
African American access to high-quality health care in particular is a pressing issue this election – if not a full-blown crisis. Here are some facts: According to the American Medical Association, racial and ethnic minorities experience a lower quality of care, receive far fewer routine medical screenings and have higher rates of morbidity and mortality compared to non-minorities, despite recent improvements in the overall health of the United States. You won’t hear President Trump touting these truths any time soon – but neither will you hear his Democratic would-be successors talking about them.
That’s why on Presidents Day, I hosted an event in Charleston with less than two weeks to go until the South Carolina primary. Even as primary voting is well underway throughout the country, we still don’t have enough information from the key contenders about how they will counter the president’s agenda of high profits for healthcare companies at the expense of everyone else.
At the event, I spoke with leaders in the South Carolina and minority communities as we work to promote the awareness of the glaring healthcare disparities that exist in our community.
Particularly important is the access to maternal and reproductive health care for African American women. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications and three to four times more likely to suffer from severe disability resulting from childbirth. The primary reason behind these heartbreaking numbers is the lack of access and poor quality of care, even in the 21st century.
Another problem being discussed in Washington that’s especially important to the black community: the shocking number of surprise medical bills that insurance companies do not cover. These bills are on the rise – and insurance companies, whose purported role is to protect patients from these costly disasters, are the culprits driving the crisis. They are quietly working to cover fewer essential services, disproportionately harming minority and low-income communities that already suffer from a severe lack of access to healthcare and are more likely to be slammed with surprise medical bills they cannot afford.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, roughly one in six inpatient admissions include at least one claim from an out-of-network provider — and 18 percent of emergency room visits are considered out-of-network. This leaves the patient on the hook to cover the cost no matter how high. A recent study found that of an average out-of-network emergency room bill is over $7,000, and that insurance companies are covering less than half of that cost. This leaves patients with a bill of “$3,778 for an emergency in which they had no choice.”
As a result, unpaid medical costs contribute to 60 percent of American bankruptcies. It is literally driving people out of their homes and onto the streets. In a recent poll, 81 percent of Americans believe insurance companies are the largest contributor to surprise medical bills. In that same poll, 67 percent agreed lawmakers should protect health care access in rural communities.
But Washington is getting it wrong. A bill led by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) to “solve” the surprise billing problem would literally insulate insurance companies from covering these costs, at a time when profits for insurance companies have reached record highs. In fact, UnitedHealth, the nation’s largest health insurance firm, recorded $19.7 billion in profits on revenues of $242.2 billion in 2019 alone. The Alexander bill is a typical Washington “solution” under this Republican president and Republican Senate.
We are paying close attention in the House, where Speaker Nancy Pelosi has an opportunity to shepherd truly helpful legislation through her chamber that holds insurers accountable while protecting patients.
We’ve followed this important discussion with a letter to the Congressional Black Caucus, cheering on its hard work on behalf of black Americans and urging its members to continue their work to hold special interests accountable.
The establishment media is carrying Big Insurance’s water on this issue, for some reason. Politico ran a story on our letter claiming that insurers are brought to the table under these bills in the House and Senate. It’s not true. The legislation would set rates below the costs of services provided, meaning patients are on the hook and providers start to go out of business. And I can assure you those hospitals are closing in places like North Charleston — not Georgetown, where the Politico journalists live.
This discussion couldn’t be more urgent, and it couldn’t come at a more important time – in South Carolina in 2016, more black women voted in the Democratic primary than white voters of both genders. South Carolina is an extremely important state for the Democratic Party to hear from a key constituency with an important – but too often ignored – perspective and lived experience.
Rev. Al Sharpton is a civil rights leader, television host and president of National Action Network (NAN), a leading civil rights advocacy nonprofit founded in the spirit and tradition of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
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