Diverse needs Featured

12:11pm EDT December 17, 2003
Addressing the health care needs of a multicultural employee population is an important business priority, especially as Chicago's work force becomes increasingly diverse.

Minority population growth is expected to soar in the coming years. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that 41 percent of the work force will be members of minority groups by 2008.

The number of minority-owned firms in Chicago is on the rise. The city ranks fifth and sixth in the United States for having the largest number of Hispanic and African-American populations, respectively.

Hidden costs

Despite improvements in the overall health of the nation in recent years, a disproportionate number of Americans who are members of a minority group may fail to receive adequate health services. Many will not receive appropriate preventive health care to help both them and the system avoid the high costs of more intense medicine required to reverse severe conditions.

They also may suffer from certain diseases at higher rates than the rest of the population. As a result, they are more likely to have poor health, suffer from chronic illnesses and have higher medical bills.

Consider:

* The prevalence of diabetes is nearly 100 percent higher among Hispanics and 70 percent higher among African-Americans than among other ethnic groups.

* Although more than 2 million African-Americans have diabetes, only 1.1 million know they have it because of the lack of diagnosis.

* African-American women with breast cancer are less likely than white women with breast cancer to survive five years, 72 percent vs. 87 percent.

Good solutions

Health benefit companies are working with employers to address disparities. Some carriers have begun to collect racial and ethnic information from employees who want to volunteer it as a way to better understand different employee groups and their specific health needs. This helps benefit companies create better and more targeted disease management and wellness programs.

Other steps employers can take to make selecting, enrolling and using benefits easier include offering benefit information in multiple languages and providing bilingual enrollers, Web sites and nurse-staffed telephone information lines. Greater diversity in physician networks also ensures employees feel comfortable selecting and visiting a doctor who shares and understands their unique concerns.

Deeper understanding

These initiatives are a good start, but can only work if employees have a clear understanding of their health care benefit. Some employees, especially those from other countries, may lack a fundamental understanding of the U.S. health care system and feel uncomfortable asking for explanations about how an HMO or managed care works. Employers and benefit companies that misinterpret this need can unintentionally alienate employees who may not seek preventive or even basic medical care.

According to the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), one-half to three-fourths of the disparities observed in 1996 would have remained even if racial and ethnic disparities in income and health insurance were eliminated. A lack of information or access to information can be a huge barrier to getting appropriate care for many employees.

A comprehensive approach that provokes an in-depth understanding of employee needs, provides targeted programs to address specific health care issues and offers tools and resources to help employees understand, access and use their health care benefits will keep employees healthy, productive and satisfied. A good benefits strategy that embraces the growing diverse employee population will help employers attract and retain skilled and valuable workers while creating a competitive and culturally rich work force.

Alejandra Garza (GarzaA2@aetna.com) is director of emerging markets for Aetna. She is responsible for developing strategies to meet the health care benefit needs of employers with diverse work forces. Garza has more than 14 years of experience in sales, account management and business development in health care. Reach her at (312) 928-3014.