02/20/06 — Forum eyes minority health care issues

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Forum eyes minority health care issues

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on February 20, 2006 1:46 PM

The best way to eliminate health disparities among minorities is through outreach and non-traditional care, says a state activist who has made equality his mission for 24 years.

Ashley Rozier, director of the Cape Fear Regional Bureau for Community Action in Fayetteville, led the charge during Thursday night's Minority Health Community Forum, held at Rebuilding Broken Places. An audience of 50 representing the community and area agencies attended the first of four sessions that will be replicated around the county.

Launched by the Wayne County Health Department to encourage public discussion about minority health issues, Health Director James Roosen said he has long known about the discrepancies in health care when it comes to different races. It became even more apparent when he began working toward a grant on the subject.

"One thing that really struck me is that minority health will soon be our nation's health," he said.

Roosen said he hopes to improve the situation through education, engagement and building a network to identify the barriers that limit access.

"One of the things I would like to do is challenge people not to tolerate health disparities and the difference between minority health and white health, Hispanic health," he said.

In Wayne County, he said, minority males die of prostate cancer at a rate four times higher than white males. Minorities also account for 80 percent of new HIV infection cases, males are four times more likely to die from homicide, and minority females account for 34 percent of the births and 63 percent of infant deaths, he said.

Pressed to say which concerns him most, Roosen said it would have to be teen pregnancy.

"There's a lot of loss potential to the community. Most of those girls will not finish high school," he said. "If this continues, it's going to be a pretty grim future in terms of the economy, especially."

Roosen said there are a lot of resources available in Wayne County, but services could be accessible. He said policies must be addressed as well as finding the best plan for delivering health care services. One way to do that is through involvement from minority leaders and representatives from those communities, he said.

"We might have to get out of the Health Department to help deliver services," he said. "I think there's a lot of things that we could do if we do it all together."

Many factors cause health disparities when it comes to people of color, Rozier said. He has spent nearly half a century advocating for non-traditional means to obtain health care, he said.

"There are double standards and often people indigenous to the population are ignored," he said. For the working poor, struggling to make ends meet, that means recognizing that these people will not neatly fit into the 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. hours when most health departments open their doors.

Rozier said his efforts in Cumberland County have been successful and have not been resisted by the health officials. His community-based organization has taken an intensive and aggressive approach to outreach during non-traditional hours, he said.

"If you want to reach the non-traditional community, you have to not be afraid to go to them," he said. He and his staff have literally taken their efforts on the road to educate the high-risk groups about HIV/AIDS, STDs, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, crime, diabetes and other areas where there is disparity, he said.

"We do not believe in just being in a building. We test people at night, on a street corner at 10 p.m., at a gang banger's house at midnight," he said.

Rozier said while it may be intimidating for some, those willing to venture into such neighborhoods are not considered to be a threat and have been mostly received well. Block parties and rallies in those same communities have also proven effective, he said.

Rozier suggested a community action plan be developed as a means to curb health disparities. Communities cannot compete with medical centers and larger entities for grants and support, so advocacy groups will be vital, he said.

"We have to prove ourselves to the system, do something different from just the Health Department or hospital," he said. "Blacks need to mobilize like white gays did several years ago. Stop being afraid that somebody knows you've got AIDs. Unless you shout and scream and bite and bark, nobody's going to listen to you."

Others on the program also spoke out about the need to combine efforts.

Dr. Alma Jenkins of Mount Olive Family Medicine Center, said health care is an issue that should concern everyone.

"Until we all enjoy a certain level of health, we will all suffer. We must make sure that all the links in the chain are strong," she said.

Barbara Pullen Smith from the state Office of Minority Health, said the grant money to study the disparities has the potential to create "unbelievable implications for minorities in North Carolina."

"We have until June 30 to use this money and use it well and document that we have some promising practices out there," she said. But the project is not about the Health Department or any other established health agency, she said. It's about every member of the community.

"I see this health project as an opportunity that has been placed in your hands," she said. Everyone can choose to admire it, hand it over to someone else, "or you can get behind your health director and make this project the foundation for a healthier Wayne County," she said.

Three other free public forums are planned in the coming months: March 23 at First Congregation United Church of Christ in Dudley; April 13 at the Norwayne Alumni Building in Fremont; and May 18 at the Carver Alumni Building in Mount Olive.