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Sullivan: Health care racism still exists

Published Oct. 13, 2005

The nation's health care system is still subject to discrimination and racism nearly 20 years after a federal study exploited black men who had syphilis, Health Secretary Louis Sullivan says. "I am afraid that we have lost our frustration and anger, our natural aversion to racism," said Sullivan, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. "Many of us no longer feel disdain or revulsion when we read of racism or see the results of discrimination."

Sullivan spoke at a symposium that used the Tuskegee Syphilis Study as a starting point to explore issues of race, prejudice and health care. The study of about 400 black men in Alabama between 1932 and 1972 documented how the disease spreads and kills. Participants were not told they had the disease, nor were they given penicillin after it was discovered as a treatment.

"I am determined that this kind of study is never repeated, ever," Sullivan said.

Sullivan said infant mortality and life expectancy in blacks are just two modern-day examples of "clear, demonstrable, undeniable evidence of discrimination and racism in our health care system."

He said the infant mortality rate for blacks is double that for whites and life expectancy for blacks is six years less than for whites. He cited a 1990 report by his department, which found that blacks wait twice as long as whites for a first kidney transplant.

Dr. Vanessa Northington Gamble, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin, said much of current research discriminates against minorities and women because it focuses on white males.