County Hopes To Close Healthcare Gap

June 13, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — The Kent County Task Force on Health Care for People of Color is the lesser known of the two objectives that County Chairman Steve Heacock featured in his State of the County last January.

Almost all of the media coverage from his speech went to his other goal: finalizing funding for the purchase of the remaining properties that will make up Millennium Park. Heacock noted in his address that the county might create a dedicated millage to provide permanent funding for the parks system, and it was that possibility which attracted most of the film crews and made most of the headlines.

But despite the lack of publicity for the task force, almost every noteworthy member of the local health-care industry is participating in it.

Spectrum Health, Saint Mary’s Mercy Medical Center, Metropolitan Hospital, Community Mental Health, the Kent Health Plan Corp., Priority Health and the Alliance for Health have joined the Kent County Health Department in the effort. So have the United Way, the Delta Strategy and Michigan National Bank.

The task force has met three times this year, and will likely meet at least three more times before the new year. Its purpose is to identify barriers to health-care access for minorities and suggest what the county can do to end the racial disparity. Then the county will take these suggestions and design a plan of attack.

“This comes from a list of statistics regarding health care for people of color,” said Heacock, also vice president of development and general counsel for Priority Health, a managed care company. “For some reason more kids of color are dying than white kids.”

In Kent County, Asians are more likely to contract tuberculosis than whites; blacks and Hispanics are more likely to contract HIV than whites; and blacks and Hispanics have a much higher infant mortality rate than whites. People of color also are more likely than whites to suffer from heart disease and respiratory problems.

“No matter what it was, in those areas the numbers are startlingly different based on race,” said Heacock. “My own personal theory is that there are probably some genetic and physiological reasons for some of these numbers. But there are also probably some differences in access — the ability to get to the care that is needed and the ability to get to the wellness and preventative care that is needed.”

The Health Department has tabbed the city’s urban core as the county’s most medically underserved area. There, the infant mortality rate is the highest and personal income is the lowest. Spreading north and east from that core is what the department calls the health professional shortage area, where there are 3,500 residents for each physician.

Another area being examined is the unwritten rules of everyday life. These are the daily guidelines that most people think everyone knows and understands, and are present in every nook and cranny of a highly individualistic and growingly complex society.

“People are expected to get there on their own. People are expected to know how to get to health care. People are expected to either pay for it or understand where they need to go when they can’t pay for it. And if they can’t do that, they’re just supposed to live with it,” said Heacock.

“My assumption is, even though we don’t mean to — you know we’re good people in Grand Rapids and we care about other folks — I think we create invisible barriers,” he added.

The task force meets again next month. When its work is finished, Heacock said the county will report the findings to the public. One part of the public that the chairman hopes pays extra-close attention to the results are the CEOs in the health-care industry.

“We need them to hear the report,” he said.

Two county members on the task force, Barbara Terry and Mary Swanson, also are working with the Kent Health Plan Corp., a committee chaired by former Blue Cross Blue Shield executive Chuck Zech. That group is trying to bring primary and preventive care to low-income employees of smaller businesses in the city, an effort unrelated to the work being done by the task force — at least for now.

“They are preparing an application to the state to get some state funding that will be matched with local and federal dollars to expand health care to people who are not eligible for Medicaid. I think there may be some overlap and some linkages as things move forward, but right now the task force is just looking at some of the barriers they’re seeing and making some recommendations to the county,” said Swanson, Kent County human/community services coordinator.

Heacock said the 20-or-so members of the task force, being co-chaired by Beverly Drake of the ACSET Council, have been enthusiastic about their mission. So far, over half of those serving said there was a good-to-excellent chance that a decrease in racial disparity can be achieved by 2010.

“I do think we can make a difference by looking at it, concentrating on it and putting some time and effort toward it,” said Heacock. “The numbers are real; these exist. Once these numbers are presented to an elected body like ours, it seems to me that we have a responsibility to try to address it.”

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