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Healthcare System Failing Young African-American Men

Elizabeth Anderson

A new report by the Journal of the American Medical Association finds that young African-American men have better survival chances in prison than on the street because they have better access to health care. Meanwhile,  a group based in Albany is rolling out a new program to address the intersection of race, crime, criminal justice policy, and health.

New York spends more money on health care than almost any other state, but a new report finds that it's not reaching one group in particular – young black men. Researchers from the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that African-American men in their teens and twenties receive few benefits from health-care spending. Boston Medical Center’s Dr. Stephen Martin, a coauthor of the report, says they have a better chance of surviving in prison than on the street.     "Your odds of dying are half in prison what they’d be on the street, because you have the things that you need to stay alive and stay healthy – you have nutrition, you’ve got a roof over your head, you’ve got medical care that’s accessible and guaranteed by the Constitution."

Albany Center For Law and Justice Director Alice Green calls Martin's report a "sad commentary on our society."   "One that does not provide adequate health care to all of the people. Black males are dying in prison at a rate three times that of whites from aids. There's limited drug treatment. There's certainly a whole host of infectious diseases, such as hepatitis B and C, TB, sexually transmitted diseases and untreated substance abuse that are rampant in our prison system. These people come back out into the community, 95 percent of the people who are incarcerated do, and so the community has to find a way of continuing whatever health care they do get inside prison."

The Viewpoint commentary in the Journal of the American Medical Association points out that African-American men can expect to live about five fewer years than white men.  Albany-based community advocate Marlon Anderson spent 13 years working in the medical profession.    "Accessibility to good medical care is lacking not just for black men, but for people who are in that poverty range in general. I think one of the best things that could have ever happened to American medical care would have been if we went to a single payer system. For black men, accessible and good health care has always been an issue, and continues to be, and is reflected in the numbers of black men dying in America."

To help change that, Martin says the U.S. needs to increase funding for social and public-health programs.  His paper suggests partnerships between primary-care providers and public health would go a long way to help young black men. Martin says it would address the lack of social services and effective primary care in communities of color.   "It’s striking how only three cents of our American health-care dollar goes to public health – just three cents. This is the same public health that gave us 90 percent of our life-expectancy gains in the 20th century. And yet, compared with medical care, public-health and social-support funding have been eviscerated."

Green's organization has taken a unique approach to address some of the problems. The Center is collaborating with a number of community organizations and groups, forming "The H.E.A.D. Project"   : "...Health, Education and Diversion. The interest is in diverting people from arrest. It's a pre-arrest type program that would put people into drug treatment and also deal with mental health issues. We're trying to educate the community as well about the problems of health, particularly looking at the intersection between race, crime, criminal justice policy and health. Because there's some serious problems amongst the population that particularly end up in our jails and prisons."

The program has opened an Albany outreach office at 153 South Pearl Street.   Green says "We're looking at all of the problems that result from, not only drugs, but being incarcerated, because we incarcerate the poorest, the unhealthiest, the sickest segments of our population. They come with a lot of different problems and issues. So we're trying to make some connections between what's happening to these people while they're in jail and when they come back out into the community. We're hoping that the Affordable Care Act can be used to provide more services and give people access to medical care."

Researchers note that heart disease and cancer contribute to lower life expectancy – but homicide is the leading cause of death for black males ages 15 to 34. It also ranks among the top three causes of death for black male children, ages one to 14.

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