The body is willing ... 

... but if the budget isn't, people who want to improve minority health care options will suffer

The speaker's eyes scan the room, waiting for someone to stand, or to wave a hand in the air.

The crowd is still, and after a few moments, he frowns and moves on.

Apparently, not a single elected official has shown up for El Paso County's first meeting to address the glaring disparities between local health care for whites and people of color. Not even state Rep. Jerry Frangas or departing Senate President Peter Groff, members of the Minority Health Advisory Commission (MHAC) that organized the meeting.

In fact, only about 45 people are at the Pikes Peak Regional Building for the four-hour meeting, though hundreds of invitations were sent out in advance. Piles of sandwiches remain untouched after a catered lunch is served to the group.

This, for a meeting designed to promote an issue often ignored.

In May 2007, Gov. Bill Ritter signed Senate Bill 242, with hopes it would improve health care for minorities and rural communities. The law formalized the state's Office of Health Disparities and created MHAC and the Inter-agency Health Disparities Leadership Council.

One of their largest responsibilities is granting $2 million to $4 million annually in tobacco tax money to Colorado organizations seeking to close the health care gap. About 16 to 24 grants, usually ranging from $70,000 to $200,000, are awarded each year to prevention programs; MHAC received about 65 applications this year.

Meetings take place yearly, here and in other locales, so communities can have a say in how money is doled out.

Who did show up May 15? Mostly health care workers who hope that even if a few million bucks won't solve the problems they see daily, the money may brighten prospects for the future.

Here's the thing: Though it was spared this budget season, Ned Calonge, chief medical officer of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, says the fledgling program could easily find its neck on the block next year.

That prospect makes the lack of political interest — so prominently on display at the meeting— especially ominous.

Little programs

Wearing a bright floral print shirt and a peaceful smile, Luisita Garcia walks confidently to the podium.

She, along with several friends, took a minivan from Pueblo to tell officials and board members what a little grant had done.

"When I started I was in a walker; now I don't need a walker," Garcia says. "I've accomplished a lot."

Garcia and her friends are part of a Pueblo County program called "Salado No Mas" (Salty No More), which operates out of two rural community centers. Fueled by a $125,000 grant from MHAC, the program offers aerobic classes, cooking courses, blood-pressure tests — all free. The hope is that the program can help residents, especially Hispanics, lose weight; Colorado's Hispanics die of diabetes at a rate twice the state average.

In its three years, about 3,000 people have participated in Salado No Mas. Volunteers have spread the word cheaply — for instance, handing out fliers at the post office, where most residents pick up mail. And they've found instructors willing to teach for free.

Closer to home, the El Paso County Department of Health and Environment launched a two-year program last summer targeting blacks. Wellness directors at People's United Methodist Church, Solid Rock Family Life Center and Trinity Baptist Church work with the health department to survey their mostly African-American congregations, find out health needs and interests, and design programs within the churches. Church-goers are now learning to self-manage diseases, help the sick and elderly, and make healthy choices. Another church, which has yet to be named, will soon join the program, which has attracted more than 1,200 participants.

Negative numbers

According to studies, minorities get sick and injured at a higher rate than whites, have less access to health care, and receive poorer quality care when they are treated. Statewide, Hispanics have the highest rate of diabetes, chronic liver disease, cervical cancer and injuries. African-Americans have the shortest life expectancy of any group in Colorado.

As the national debate's continued, the state has made strides to provide insurance to more people. But the recession has derailed plans to cover those with incomes far above the poverty line but still too low to afford health insurance.

MHAC grants won't solve those problems, because they don't help people pay for medical treatments.

"We're looking at small amounts of money, and we want to do something that will have the most impact," says MHAC chair Dr. Anthony Young, of the Colorado Department of Human Services. "What we're hoping to do is prevent health disparities in the long run, not in the short run."

It doesn't help people like Carolyn Kalaskie of Penrose Cancer Center, who says she doesn't know how to help patients, often people of color, who can't pay for treatment that could save their lives. Unfortunately, says Calonge, problems like that are likely to persist until the health care system is overhauled.

"Ultimately, we need to look at ourselves," he says. "I'm cautiously optimistic that a leader like our new president is going to take this issue on."



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