Originally published Tuesday, October 18, 2011 at 3:46 PM

Guest columnist

Repeating Martin Luther King Jr.'s call for health-care equity

Seattle native Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, reflects on her brush 50 years ago with Martin Luther King Jr. and how equity in health care must be a priority for society.

Special to The Times

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WITH the official unveiling of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the national mall this past weekend, many are taking time to honor the life and legacy of this great champion of dignity, freedom and justice.

I was 7 years old when Dr. King came to Washington state in November of 1961. It was his only trip to Seattle, a whirlwind two days. Friday night he spoke to a big crowd downtown. Afterward, he and a bunch of ministers and friends went out for barbecue and then came back to my parents' house. I was allowed to stay up. Amid the fun and laughter, there was Dr. King, sitting in our living room.

My parents were physicians. Mother knew Martin Luther King Jr. from childhood. My grandfather was a deacon at Martin Sr.'s Ebenezer Baptist Church. In fact, Martin Sr. married my parents and buried my grandparents.

Two generations ago, when Dr. King issued a stinging indictment of the inequalities of the health of Americans, I had no idea how much his words would affect my life, or all of our lives. He said, "Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhumane."

He was spot on then and it's spot on today. America simply cannot reconcile the differences that divide us without also reconciling the inequality and injustice that's embedded so deeply in the health and health care of our people.

Some 40 years after my brush with Dr. King, I was asked to lead a study on racial and ethnic disparities in health care for the Institutes of Medicine. We found that gaping inequities in health care are rampant among people of different races — even when income, education and insurance status are the same.

Just a few months ago, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that racial and ethnic minorities are less likely to get the preventive care they need to stay healthy, more likely to suffer from serious illnesses and are less likely to have access to quality health care when they get sick.

In mainstream white America, most people presume that a certain level of support and care is ready and waiting for them when and where they need it. They just assume — correctly — that it's going to be there no matter what.

That's not the case for people of color.

Hispanics and African Americans in this region and across the nation are disproportionately uninsured. Hispanic and Vietnamese women contract cervical cancer at twice the rate of white women. American Indians suffer from diabetes at more than twice the rate of the white population. Blacks living with diabetes are more likely to go blind, have feet and legs amputated, and fall into end-stage renal failure than are whites with diabetes.

The U.S. Census Bureau tells us that in less than 30 years, more than half of the nation's working-age population will be people of color. That may sound like it's a long way off, but unless we make giant strides forward, and fast, America's midcentury workforce will be less healthy and our nation's competitiveness will erode.

Half a century after Dr. King delivered his message, we still have not ingrained the wisdom of his words into our health-care system: "Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly ... I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be."

Regardless of one's own health and insurance status, we are all affected by poor-quality, high-cost care and a health system that treats people differently. Until the inequities in care are eliminated, we will all struggle to reach the mountaintop.

Raised in Seattle, Risa Lavizzo-Mourey is president and CEO of the Princeton, N.J.,-based Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, America's largest philanthropy focused exclusively on health and health care. Her mother, pediatrician Blanche Lavizzo, was the first medical director of the Odessa Brown Children's Clinic in Seattle.


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