'Best Investment We Can Make'
By Carla Garnett
Photos by Karlton Jackson
On the Front Page...
Healthcare reform and education top the agenda of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) this session, according to Dr. Donna Christian-Christensen, U.S. Virgin Islands delegate to the House of Representatives and the first female physician to serve in Congress.
"The best investment we can make in our future economy and in seeing that we develop our full human potential is in our healthcare and education systems," she said.
Welcoming Christian-Christensen on her first visit to NIH, Dr. Donald Lindberg, director of the National Library of Medicine, spoke briefly about NLM's contribution to the NIH Strategic Plan to Reduce Health Disparities, a document developed with input from each institute and center. NLM's contribution to the multi-year strategy includes technological innovations in health information dissemination such as the user-friendly web sites clinicaltrials.gov and medlineplus.gov. NLM had invited the congresswoman to speak in observance of Black History Month.
"One of things that has pleased me most as I've been serving in this position for the past year is the way the organizations of the agency have really rallied around the importance of minority health issues, particularly health disparities," said Dr. Yvonne Maddox, NIH acting deputy director since January 2000. She recalled seeing Christian-Christensen among several other members of the CBC speak on the floor of the House in late November just before the healthcare fairness legislation was passed to create NIH's National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities. "It's so appropriate and so timely that we have Dr. Christian-Christensen here to speak to us for Black History Month," Maddox said. "I'm delighted to join Dr. Lindberg in welcoming her to NIH."
A third-term Democrat, Christian-Christensen chairs the CBC's health brain trust, which oversees and advocates minority health issues both nationally and internationally. Although this was her first trip to NIH's campus, she recalled that she has been interacting with the agency on a number of issues over the years, the "crowning achievement" being the culmination of a 2-year effort to create the new center.
"In this, the Information Age, data has become as precious as gold," she noted. "Here we are in the largest repository of biomedical information in the world and we want to commend the National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health for making these resources available to millions of people around the world. But in many instances, it's not the technological information, but very basic information that is the critical need as we try to chart a course of wellness for this nation, especially with regard to communities of color. That makes the work you do day after day so very valuable to us, whether we're in education, in research, in practice or in politics and policy."
Christian-Christensen acknowledged that life expectancy gaps between majority and minority citizens have widened and that communities of color continue to suffer disproportionately with such life-threatening ailments as cardiovascular disease, several cancers and AIDS. In addition, the mental health field is plagued by disparities in availability and access to minorities.
Noting that the United States "the world's only remaining superpower" is the only industrialized nation that does not provide healthcare to all its citizens, she said the CBC is proud to be called unofficially "the conscience of the Congress" and has made such universal coverage a top priority on its agenda.
"It becomes our challenge NLM, who holds the information; NIH, who conducts the research; our community partners, who advocate on behalf of those they serve; and ours, the legislators entrusted with the power to use the information to create policy and advance change," she said. "This brings us back to the power of the vote and where do we go from here...We are convinced that the 'empowerment approach' is the way to health and well-being for us in the new millennium."
Christian-Christensen said another primary CBC goal is to see that all citizens have equal access to the voting booth for the next election. Election reform, she contended, can help solve myriad other societal ills, including health disparities.
"This particular year our focus is on election reform," she said, referring to difficulties reported during the recent presidential election. "That may seem to be very far away from the issues we want to discuss here, but it's not that far away at all. Politics and elections determine whether you will have the resources to get your job done."
Other major CBC initiatives for the 107th Congress include increased investment in training minority healthcare providers and additional emphasis on mental health issues, she said.
"We must reshape, rebuild and recreate the entire healthcare landscape in many of our communities," she concluded, noting that it will be tougher to change education and healthcare than to address election reform. "We in the Congressional Black Caucus applaud and thank the Library of Medicine. I hope that my being here today begins a new and broader dialogue and collaboration that will even further advance the health and quality of life of the people that we in Congress and you here at NIH serve."
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