Racial and ethnic disparities Featured

7:00pm EDT February 28, 2007

The United States always has been considered a ‘melting pot’ of cultures, and one look at the U.S. employee population reflects this diversity. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 41 percent of the U.S. work force between 1998 and 2008 will be members of minority groups.

With such a diverse population, it is essential for employers to realize that their particular employee population will have a wide variety of needs and issues, some based on their racial and ethnic background.

“We are really moving past the ‘onesize-fits-all’ type of health plan, mostly because we understand that consumers have different requirements from their health plan based on their individual circumstances,” says Bill Berenson, vice president of sales and service for Aetna’s Small & Middle Market Business in the North Central Region. “Creating programs and plans that address racial and ethnic disparities in health care is an important part of that process.”

Smart Business spoke with Berenson, who discussed how some insurers are helping employers address these health care disparities, as well as some positive results that can be achieved for both consumers and their employers.

What are some examples of health care disparities in the United States?

Research indicates that minorities suffer from certain diseases at significantly higher levels than white Americans.


  • Asthma — Approximately 26 percent more prevalent in African-American children than in white children.



  • Cardiovascular disease — Higher risk for Mexican-Americans and Native Americans than for Caucasian Americans.



  • Diabetes — Hispanic/Latino Americans are 1.5 times more likely to have diabetes than non-Hispanic whites of similar age.



  • Prostate cancer — African-American men have a 60 percent higher incidence rate compared with white men.


Can specific programs address these types of issues?

For each disparity that exists, a corresponding program can be created to help minimize the impact of the problem. For example, some insurers are attempting to educate Hispanic individuals who have or are at risk for diabetes by using a full range of Spanish-language services, tools and materials.

Another example is an initiative aimed at identifying and informing African-American and Hispanic/Latina women who have not had their annual screening mammo-grams about the importance of this preventive measure. Both of these groups of women have a higher mortality from breast cancer than their Caucasian counterparts.

How do insurers develop these programs, and how can they be delivered to employees?

These programs are developed based on established evidence of racial and ethnic disparities in health care, as well specific information that is volunteered by health plan members. The more information that is available to the insurers, the more likely it is that they will be able to create programs that can improve health care quality and help to effectively combat various disparities. With additional information from these members, insurers and employers can also more effectively deliver these programs to the appropriate individuals who can benefit from them.

How do these programs help employers?

Even if an employer offers medical benefits equally to all its employees, certain employees will not be inclined to take advantage of all the benefits that are available. By letting employees know about programs that may be appropriate to them as individuals, an employer is likely to see greater acceptance and use of health benefits programs from the individuals that they are designed to help.

This increased awareness and use can lead to a healthier work force, which usually means a more content, loyal and productive group of employees. With significant benefits for both an employer and their workers, it is important to try to find an insurer that is committed to closing the gap and addressing racial and ethnic disparities in health care.

BILL BERENSON is vice president of sales and service for Aetna’s Small & Middle Market Business in the North Central Region. Reach him at (312) 928-3323 or berensonw@aetna.com.