A panel of physicians told state lawmakers Wednesday Black men, women and children have significantly worse health outcomes because of policies that make it harder for Black residents to receive health care, get economic opportunities and live free of things that imperil their health, like pollution.
The presentation on the causes of health disparities, particularly for Blacks, was the focus of the interim committee on health, welfare and family services Wednesday in Frankfort. The presentation included physicians from both the University of Louisville and from the former director of the Center for Health Equity with the Louisville Health Department.
Sen. Ralph Alvarado, a Winchester Republican and the committee’s co-chairman, said the presentation was scheduled so lawmakers could learn about the causes of racial disparities in health.
“We know this is a real issue,” Alvarado said. “We see it. The data doesn’t lie.”
Dr. Anita Fernander, an associate professor of behavioral science with the University of Kentucky, told lawmakers Black residents have worse health outcomes across the board compared to whites.
The state as a whole ranks 43rd in life expectancy. But, Black men in Kentucky have shorter life expectancies than white men, and Blacks have higher death rates due to cancer, asthma, diabetes and cerebrovascular disease.
The origins of what created those disparities goes back hundreds of years, Fernander said.
“Our early economy was founded on the color-coded, race-based system of slavery,” Fernander said.
In terms of biology and genetics, no research has ever demonstrated that Blacks are in any way different or inferior to others, Fernander said.
“Race is politically and socially constructed,” she said. But the concept of “race” has been used to justify social and political inequality, Fernander said. That resulted in wealth and opportunity disproportionately being funneled to whites.
Dr. Brandy Kelly Pryor, former director for the Center for Health Equity said the 2017 Louisville Health Equity report found in the poorest parts of Louisville, the average life expectancy was 69.6 to 71.7 years. By comparison, in the wealthiest areas of the city, life expectancy was 78.6 to 82.2 years.
“In Louisville, we are looking at a history of racism,” Pryor said.
For example, Pryor said policies caused businesses to leave the West Ninth Street area of Louisville, which had a negative impact on health outcomes.
“Where you live matters … in terms of how long you can expect to live,” Pryor said.
Dr. V. Faye Jones, a member of U of L’s department of pediatrics, said health inequalities are the “result of systemic, avoidable and unjust social and economic policies and practices that create barriers to opportunity. Health disparities are preventable.”
Jones said policies that have affected Black neighborhoods have real health consequences.
“I see the little child that comes in with another asthma attack because she lives in a neighborhood with poor air quality,” Jone said.
Policies that have marginalized Black communities, Jone said, include “redlining,” a government policy where Blacks were segregated by banks refusing to give them home loans and mortgages to keep them from living in certain neighborhoods.
Other policies that have negatively affect the health of Black communities include the “War on Drugs,” which disproportionately targeted Blacks, and school funding formulas, Jones said.
“We know those social inequalities affect these same people over and over,” Jones said.
Even infants are affected by racial disparities in health care. Black women in Louisville were more likely than whites to give birth prematurely. Infant mortality disproportionately affects Black infants, according to information Jones provided to the committee.
“Black babies die three times more often if they are not cared for by someone that looks like them,” Jones said.
Jones said inequality that creates health disparities damages the entire state, because it creates a decline in economic opportunity.
“We know that health outcomes stem from those root causes that are shaped by systems of power,” Jones said.
Jones asked the committee to create policies that alleviate issues that cause health disparities, such as housing, access to healthcare, access to nutritious food in communities without grocery stores.