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Portland Conference: Helping Minorities Navigate the Affordable Care Act
06/04/2013   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

Most people know the Affordable Care Act is coming. But they may still have a lot of questions about how it will improve their health care. And according to some observers, that's especially true for minorities, who already face disparities in accessing health care. A minority health care conference in Portland today was focused on ensuring this population isn't left behind once the Affordable Care Act ramps up next January. Patty Wight reports.

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Most of Maine's minority population is in the greater Portland area, which is home to more than 66,000 immigrants and refugees. Getting this population to the doctor can be a challenge, says nurse Jessica Loney, because many don't know how to access health care in this country - "the voiceless, not necessarily having a voice to represent certain communities, even within the health care system," she says.

Even if they make it to the doctor, language and cultural barriers can make the experience confusing and hard to follow. Nelida Berke is a community health outreach worker in Portland. Her job is to help navigate minority patients through their health care, from filling out initial paperwork to making sure they take medication and get to appointments.

"It's a huge impact on the patient's health when they know what to do," she says.

Part of Berke's job in the coming months will be to make sure these minority patients know how to sign up for insurance when enrollment opens in October under the new federal law.

Increasing minorities' access to health care stands to benefit the larger population, says Joe Ditre of Consumers for Affordable Health Care. He says the issues they confront when seeing a doctor, such as understanding their treatment, are magnified versions of the challenges other patients face.

"We're learning so much more just about how to talk to providers and how to understand what they're telling us," he says. "But it couldn't be any more evident than if you don't speak English."

John Auerbach, director of the Institute of Urban Health Research in Massachusetts, says focusing on minorities will also have system-wide benefits.

"We know that if we're trying to control health care costs," he says, "having greater access to preventive care and treatment - early treatment screening - is a way of reducing costs" - and, says Auerbach, of improving overall health outcomes, including life expectancy and infant mortality.

Auerbach has unique insight into the implications of the Affordable Care Act: He's the former public health commissioner of Massachusetts, which instituted health care reforms in 2006 that became a model for the federal law.

"And if what we saw in Massachusetts is the case around the country," Auerbach says, "we'll see a closing of the gap between those people of other races and whites with regard to access to health insurance."

Auerbach says while access will make a significant dent in reducing health inequities, it won't complete the job. The next steps, he says, will be to focus on cost and quality.


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