Healthcare: Regina Benjamin is a welcome choice for U.S. surgeon general

 Benjamin’s nomination, which comes at a critical time in the healthcare reform debate, responds to a national need. While 76 percent of Americans support the idea of a public option and agree that the growing number of the uninsured, at 47 million, is more than unsustainable, what gets lost in the debate — and where Benjamin’s emphasis on disparities will be paramount — is the critical importance of healthcare equity. Our system is simply not serving everyone equally.

High-quality healthcare remains elusive to many ethnic and racial minorities. Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities, for example, face daunting cultural and language barriers due to lack of multi-lingual healthcare services, limited prognosis and treatment due to poor data collection and unique health challenges such as Hepatitis B.

On language barriers, AAPI communities are significantly limited in their English proficiency, with 76 percent Hmong, 70 percent Cambodian, 68 percent Laotian, and 61 percent Vietnamese lost in translation. By misunderstanding healthcare providers and social service agencies, they face complicated diagnoses and prescription directions, which result in poorer health and even death.

On data collection, the need for improved practices is profound. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, has no information on AAPIs, citing only “Black, White, or Hispanic/Non-White.” Diabetes, meanwhile, is pervasive and increasing in Asian American communities.

On Hepatitis B, AAPI communities, African-Americans and Native Americans suffer from higher rates of Hepatitis B than other ethnic groups. Asian Americans count for half of chronic Hepatitis B cases and half of deaths resulting from chronic Hepatitis B infection. Most infections remain undiagnosed until the late stages of the disease. This late diagnosis often results in liver transplants, cirrhosis of the liver, liver cancer and frequently death.

Focusing on the needs of these diverse communities, Benjamin will bend President Obama’s ear in the coming days. Guided by her experience in the most impoverished of post-Katrina environments, Benjamin’s presence will be a boon to the president’s call for a public option.

Why? In addition to her attention to disparities, Benjamin knows firsthand how healthcare is an insurmountable financial hurdle for many American families. Families in rural Alabama’s Bayou La Batre, many of whom are insured, are no doubt impacted by premiums doubling over the past nine years, a rate three times faster than wage increases. Benjamin knows that by failing to provide coverage to 47 million people, we incur higher costs; the uninsured are less likely to visit the doctor regularly and less likely to receive quality primary care and preventive services. As a result, the uninsured have a 25 percent higher mortality risk and higher rates of death from preventable illness than the insured.

In sum, the president’s pick for Surgeon General indicates where his road to healthcare reform is headed — in the direction of a plan pointedly for the public. And it is the right one.

Honda is chairman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.