Austin residents learned once again about the serious health disparities between whites and blacks in Chicago at a recent health care event in Austin – and what they can do to close the gap.

Bethel New Life hosted the April 30 event at its Amberg Hall, 1140 N. Lamon. Residents listened to experts explain how more African-Americans are dying from various diseases than whites.

The death rate for African-Americans with breast cancer, for example, was twice as high in 2005 as it was in 1990 in Chicago, said Steve Whitman, director of Sinai Urban Health Institute and one of the presenters at the event.

That death rate also grew in a similar fashion in heart disease.

For 25 years, the Institute has studied the racial disparity issue in health care. Their study has found that 3,200 more African-Americans die than whites each year in Chicago.

The study looks at 15 health measures, including strokes, lung cancer and breast cancer. In a majority of these categories, blacks have continued to experience a higher death rate than whites. Whitman attributes that to a lack of proper health care access for all races.

“White women have made large gains against breast cancer, but black women have not been allowed access to these gains at all,” he said.

In Austin, Whitman said the life expectancy is about six years lower than the overall city of Chicago.

The area is about 85 percent African American. But the best way to combat the disparity gap is through prevention efforts, the presenters said.

Catherine Jones, PTA president for Douglass High School, advocates for prevention, saying she gets regular mammograms.

Recently, doctors detected a benign tumor. But, she asked, what if the tumor was cancerous and she wasn’t getting regular check-ups?

Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) agreed that prevention is the biggest lifesaver. She said she holds yearly health fairs in Austin that focus on prevention efforts.

“A young man told me I saved his life because he went and got tested for prostate cancer after one of my fairs,” Mitts said.

Prevention and treatment may be easier now as provisions from the Affordable Care Act begin to kick in, according to the presenters.

The federal health law will require Americans to either choose a healthcare plan or pay a fee for not having health insurance. The yearly fee for the uninsured will start at $95 in 2014, which could be bumped to $695 in 2015.

People who earn between 139 to 400 percent of the federal poverty level can get assistance when buying insurance. That means a family of four whose total income is $90,000 or less may be eligible for assistance.

Disparity nightmare story

Marcus Murray suffered a mild heart attack at the age of 37 in 2007. He says his experience with the health care institution he went to was not a positive one.

 

"There's a lot of racism when you walk into a health care facility for black men," said Murray, who suffers from high blood pressure and an irregular heartbeat. "I had top-of-the-line insurance at the time. But the nurse didn't look like me, didn't understand."

 

Murray recalled that due to a miscommunication, he and a nurse argued about whose care he was under at the time.

 

"I felt disrespected, I felt she was racist toward me," said Murray, recalling how he was escorted out of the hospital by security and left outside to wait for his relatives despite needing immediate care.

 

Murray's experience exemplifies a study by Sinai Urban Health Institute released last month. Researchers found that discrimination in public health institutions may be the root cause for the disparities among African-Americans and other minorities.

 

"We found difference in health between black people and white people and certainly hypothesized that discrimination is one of the main causes for that," said Steve Whitman, the institute's director.

 

About 1,700 whites, blacks, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans were sampled for the study. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also examines the health disparity issue.

 

The CDC's research pointed to the higher likelihood of African-Americans being hospitalized for high blood pressure due to lack of early diagnoses. Murray, who is director of Project Brotherhood, a community-based health care initiative on the South Side, noted some common reasons why blacks don't get screen.

 

Among them, disproportionate access to health care institutions and inability to pay for health care.