Gateway Medical hosts health conference

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Heath disparities in our society are a disturbing reality for many and has resulted in some startling statistics—83,000 people a year die in this country due to health disparities; 51 million people in America are underinsured or have no insurance at all; and one million of these live in Pennsylvania.

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PANEL LEADERS—State representatives Joe Preston Jr., Ron Waters and Jake Wheatley with Lillian Escobar-Haskins. (Photos by J.L. Martello)

In an effort to facilitate a discussion to help identify the action items necessary to close the gap in this state, on Sept. 25, the Pittsburgh Gateway Medical Society convened a legislative town hall meeting at UPMC Shadyside’s Herberman Conference Center. This gathering was a part of the ongoing effort of this group led by Dr. Margaret-Larkins Pettigrew, president, to continue their advocacy to eliminate racial and ethnic disparities.

She said the weekend’s effort was an opportunity to look at the broad range of health disparities affecting African-Americans and Latinos across the commonwealth and create a healthy exchange with elected officials and policy makers and move towards an agenda whose ultimate goal is “closing the gap.”

A joint sponsorship with the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Center for Continuing Education in the Health Services, and in collaboration with Highmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield and the Association of Black Cardiologists, the town hall format was a presentation of two panels of speakers and moderated by Dr. Angela F. Ford, executive director of the University of Pittsburgh, Center for Minority Health.

The first morning panel was composed of local physicians, heads of organizations and representatives from the Pennsylvania Department of Health: Dr. Diego Chaves-Gnecco, MPH; Esther L. Bush, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh; Jamahal C. Boyd Sr., director, Office of Health Equity, Pennsylvania Department of Health; John Lovelace, chief program officer for Community Care Behavioral Health Organization, and Dr. Jarret R. Patton, pediatrician, Lehigh Valley Health Network.

Chaves-Gnecco, program director and founder of Salud Para Ninos (Health for Children) an organization born out of his CORE training in the summer of 2002 and is a culturally and linguistically competent primary care facility for Latino children and families. Boyd, in his role as head of the Department of Health’s Office of Health Equity, provides leadership toward increasing public awareness of health disparities in Pennsylvania. He advocates for the development of programs to address health disparities and works with policy makers, insurers, health care providers and communities to implement policies and programs that result in measurable and sustained improvements in the health status of underserved and disparate populations. John Lovelace is president of UPMC for YOU, a managed care organization that serves Medical Assistance recipients in 14 counties in western Pennsylvania, and is also vice president for Medicaid Services for the UPMC Insurance Services Division. Dr. Jarret Patton is the medical director of Outpatient Pediatrics at Lehigh Valley Health Network since 2005.

They began with a welcome and statement of purpose, by the event chair and co-chairs Dr. Christopher Allen and Dr. Lee Kirksey and an introduction of the first panel. Participants were instructed to present to the audience an issue of particular relevance to them/their organization, discuss the dynamic of that issue and then present what their organization is doing to address that aspect of disparities.

At the conclusion of these presentations, the legislative panel was invited to stage. Members of the PA. Legislative Black Caucus were Rep. Ronald G. Waters, 191st Legislative District, and Chair of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus; Rep. Jake Wheatley Jr., 19th Legislative District and vice chair of the PLBC; Rep. Joe Preston Jr., 24th Legislative District; and Lillian Escobar-Haskins, director of the Office of Policy, Pennsylvania Department of Health.

The state representatives and Escobar-Haskins gave their perspective in the matter of health disparities in their communities. They began with some of the reasons that our society is still out of balance in matters of health and well-being, especially when it comes to African-Americans and Latinos. They also discussed their role as legislators and how policy can affect things like access to health care, allocations of funds that support a variety of organizations and options for treatment for the underserved. Waters commended the Gateway Medical Society for this forum and for their vigilance in working on behalf of those negatively affected by health disparities. Preston said many of the attitudes about seeking medical care might have stemmed from childhood fears of going to the doctor. He also suggested that, relative to the cost of health care in this state, we would do well to remember that our tax dollars, along with covering Medicare and Medicaid, also covers the cost of health care in the penal system, another disparate group that often gets overlooked. Wheatley spoke of the importance of recognizing the social deterrents, such as poverty, unemployment, criminal element and racism that combined to create health disparities. He said that the challenge for all of us is to take up this mantle—“addressing in our own capacity within our communities”—the mitigating factors that lend itself to poor health, including violence, homicide and the mental stress of day to day living. “The work to end health disparities should continue 364 days from today. We should be moving to empower communities, and exam the scope of this issue.”

After legislatures made their initial presentations on the topic, the floor opened for audience participation in a question and answer period. Because this created so much interest and evoked so much passion the participants were invited to stay for lunch so the exchange could continue.

The keynote presenter for the afternoon session was Daniel Dawes, J.D. Premier Health Alliance, chair, National Working Group on Health Disparities and Health Reform. Dawes’ presentation “Health Reform as a Path to Health Equity,” was a complete breakdown of the provisions of health care reform.

The day concluded with a special Advocacy Luncheon for Concerned Healthcare Professions across the commonwealth.

(For information on this and other Gateway Medical Society programs, inquire at administration@gatewaymedicalsociety.org or 412-281-4086.)

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