Health equity could strengthen Minnesota’s workforce, UMN report says

The report found Minnesota could save $2.26 billion per year if minorities had better access to healthcare.

by Michelle Griffith

Eliminating racial health disparities may be the key to keeping the Minnesota’s workforce strong, according to a new report from the University of Minnesota.

While Minnesota is one of the healthiest states in the nation, it also has some of the worst racial health disparities – and resolving them could save the state up to $2.26 billion a year, the study says. Researchers hope quantifying human and economic costs of these disparities will push experts to work for better health outcomes for racial minorities.

Minnesota Department of Health data show racial health disparities date back years, but the findings haven’t led to any concrete action. This study found mortality rates are disproportionately high for American Indians, African Americans and Asian and Pacific Islanders in Minnesota.

Some racial and ethnic minorities are also disproportionately impacted by certain causes of death. For example, African Americans die of HIV/AIDS and homicide at rates 7 and 6 times higher than the rest of the population, respectively, according to the report.

American Indians are disproportionately impacted by liver disease and cirrhosis, as well as homicide and suicide, the report says. Asian and Pacific Islander residents are three times more likely to die from diabetes and kidney disease than the rest of the population.

The study, sponsored by Blue Cross Blue Shield, used census data and mortality records. An advisory board of 11 representatives from racially/ethnically varied communities shaped the project and developed plans to communicate its findings.

Researchers arrived at the $2.26 billion cost estimate by analyzing the potential lives saved, employment increases and productivity improvements that would result from eliminating these disparities, said University doctoral student Man Xu, who studies inequality, policy analysis and labor economics.

The study emphasized recent findings showing that as members of the baby boomer generation retire, Minnesota will require more workers to fill those jobs and keep the state’s economy prosperous, said Janelle Waldock, vice president of community health and health equity for Blue Cross Blue Shield. If the state wants its economy to keep growing, its minority residents must have jobs, she added.

Many individuals of minority groups can’t work because they suffer from poor health and, as a result, don’t have health insurance, contributing to the state’s health disparities, said Mónica Hurtado. Hurtado is the racial justice and health equity organizer for Voices for Racial Justice, a Minnesota organization focused on “racial, cultural, social and economic justice.”

Non-native English speakers may choose not to find coverage through MNsure because the system is complex and confusing for those who aren’t fluent in English, Hurtado said. Often, people within Minnesota’s minority groups only purchase health insurance when their health or a loved one’s health is dire, she added.

The University’s report highlighted the potential increase in productivity that could result from eliminating gaps in health outcomes. The average estimated economic benefit of increased work would be between about $3.8 and $60.7 million per year, according to the study.

Waldock said she hopes attaching a monetary cost to disparities will motivate the state to resolve the issues.

“The Minnesota Department of Health and communities have made recommendations before, but they are just sitting on the bookshelf. Politics gets in the way,” Hurtado said.

The report recommends the state’s health care providers better tailor health interventions to each racial and ethnic group, and that the state collect more detailed data about health outcomes for residents who identify as racial minorities. It also hopes community leaders and lawmakers will make an effort to fix disparities.

Hurtado said policymakers should stop relying on experts who aren’t members of the groups impacted by disparities and instead should be informed by people of color and those who have personally experienced the effects.

Researchers wanted to ensure the report didn’t blame minority residents for racial health disparities.

“The system needs to pull its weight and, you know, bring everybody to the same level. [Blame] is not on the individual groups – it’s on the system,” said project coordinator and University researcher Kate Kent.