The financial consequences of health inequalities are staggering
You may see the words “health disparities” and think it’s all been said about unequal treatment in health care. Certainly, much has been discussed in recent years about inequalities in health care between people of color in this country and their white counterparts. Indeed, black men do have the highest prevalence of (and largest death rates from) hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease and stroke. They have a shorter average life expectancy than other men, too: six years shorter than white men and eight years shorter than Hispanic men. But if you believe it’s all been said about health disparities, you’re wrong.
A study published last month in the International Journal of Men’s Health took the unusual step of looking at the economic consequences of health disparities and found that the United States economy lost $96.8 billion from 2006 and 2009 in excess medical costs due to health disparities for black men. That’s billion with a “b,” folks.
The study, based on research at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, analyzed the direct and indirect costs of health inequalities (and the potential savings should said disparities be addressed). It also detected no direct excess costs from health disparities for other racial or ethnic groups.
“Health disparities have a devastating impact on individuals and families, and they also affect society as a whole,” says Roland J. Thorpe, assistant professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health and study’s lead author. “These stark findings underscore the fact that we can’t afford to overlook men’s health disparities that exist in this country.”
The study’s findings were based on data from the Agency for Health Care Research and Quality’s 2006-09 “Medical Expenditure Panel Survey.” Researchers used the survey data to determine the prevalence of conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and obesity by race and then plugged the data into statistical models to estimate the total direct and indirect medical costs and the proportion of costs due to health disparities for each racial group.
For black men, direct health costs equaled $447.6 billion over the study period; $24.2 billion a year was due to excess costs from health disparities. Indirect costs (lower worker productivity due to illness) were calculated separately, and those numbers were equally alarming. The overall indirect cost of health disparities to the U.S. economy was $436.3 billion. African-American men accounted for 72 percent of that total. “The numbers are staggering,” Thorpe says.
Though disparities are made up of a toxic brew of discrimination, cultural barriers and lack of access to care, Thorpe is hopeful health reform will address a large part of the problem. “The ACA will likely afford lower-wage income earners opportunities to access better preventive care,” he says. “Hopefully, this will help prevent many of the chronic conditions associated with the disparities, as well as help those who already suffer from any chronic conditions afford to better manage them and avoid complications and premature death.”