This month, I’m taking a moment to reflect on the progress we’ve made to improve access to healthcare for communities of color. April is Minority Health Month, a time to acknowledge and raise awareness about health disparities among historically disadvantaged minority populations in our country.
As the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Region VI Director, I represent the south-central states and roughly 13% of the U.S. population. Our region includes the second largest Hispanic population. We also are home to states with the large Black and American Indian populations. Region VI includes a large uninsured population, with four out of five of our states having higher uninsured rates than the national average, which is 8.6%. The high uninsured rates contribute to high rates of chronic health conditions due to people not being diagnosed or not able to manage their health conditions. I recently spoke at a Senior Center in North Texas, where an elderly woman, Beverley, shared with me that she has been trying to manage her cardiovascular disease with diet, exercise and medications over the years, but the costs of medications are increasing, and she is starting to struggle to afford her medications on her fixed income. That’s unacceptable. And that’s why HHS is working every day to implement the Inflation Reduction Act, to improve access to health care, lower prescription drug costs, and reduce health disparities among people with Medicare.
While Minority Health Month may come once a year, HHS has made it a priority every day to put equity at the center of all of our work. While we are taking great strides to improve access to health care for all Americans, it’s important to recognize that disparities persist, making it harder for many people of color and minority groups to access and afford health care. The historic prescription drug law is lowering health care costs across the board for American families, including seniors and people with disabilities with Medicare.
One of the most important parts of the Inflation Reduction Act is also one of the most beneficial to Black and Latino older adults with Medicare who experience higher rates of diabetes. The law capped the cost of each covered insulin product at $35 per month’s supply. Longstanding structural barriers have affected the ability of many people of color to have health insurance, access to a regular source of health care, access to healthy foods, and many other factors that have led to higher rates of diabetes and other chronic conditions. Due to these systemic barriers, Black, Latino, and Asian Medicare enrollees have higher rates of diabetes. Black, Latino and Asian Medicare enrollees also report more difficulty affording their prescriptions. Capping the cost of insulin provides not only financial relief, but peace of mind to many families that may be struggling to afford this medication.
Additionally, the law capped out-of-pocket drug costs to make sure that all prescription drugs are affordable for those who need them. This year, certain people with Medicare with high prescription drug costs will now see some relief by no longer paying anything out-of-pocket once they hit about $3,500 in 2024. I met another person, Paul, at a senior center whose medicine was $12,000 out-of-pocket last year. That kind of savings can be life changing for seniors.
Next year, even more people will benefit from cost reductions. Medicare enrollees will benefit from a flat $2,000 out-of-pocket cap on all Medicare Part D prescription drug costs. That can mean saving thousands of dollars, a life-changing amount for many seniors and people with disabilities who are currently struggling to afford their medication.
More needs to be done to reduce health disparities in this country. I’ve dedicated much of my time as HHS Regional Director to promote the actions that HHS has taken to address health equity across the region and to share the benefits of the Inflation Reduction Act.
We’re seeing real progress. More people have affordable health coverage today than ever before, and we are tackling the skyrocketing cost of prescription drugs at every angle – making it easier for people of color and others who have historically faced significant barriers to health care to get the life-saving medication and care they need.
Julia Lothrop is the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Acting Regional Director for Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, and 68 Federally Qualified Tribes. She has worked with the regional office for over 20 years.