- Too many adults and children in the United States lack adequate access to health care. Many are in rural counties, and communities of color are disproportionately affected.
- Research shows that healthy students generally experience higher levels of academic success and unhealthy students less likely to graduate from school
- NEA continues to make the case to Congress that we must take steps to reduce health care disparities in order to strengthen families, protect educators, and ensure that children are ready to learn at school.
Inequities in access to health care services across the country make it difficult for all educators, students, and families to receive the full spectrum of care they need. These long standing disparities have a direct impact on the success of our nation’s public schools.
"Socrates had it right—a healthy mind in a healthy body leads to success,” says Dr. Angie Miyashiro, a health and physical education teacher in a rural region of Hawaii. "If a student feels all right mentally, emotionally, and physically, then they’re in a good place to succeed. But if they don’t feel good, or if they’re worried about someone at home who is sick, they’re not going to hear a word we’re telling them.”
Dr. Miyashiro says that existing disparities in health care across the country—which are often caused by income, geographic region, gender, ethnicity, and race—can exacerbate preventable health concerns and medical issues by limiting individuals’ access to medical checkups, hospitals, and doctor’s visits.
Because residents of rural communities and multicultural regions are often exposed to unhealthy conditions while also lacking access to preventative health care services, they are more likely to die from treatable medical conditions than those living in more urban or affluent communities. This includes a higher risk of death from heart disease, stroke, chronic lower respiratory disease, cancer, and unintentional injuries.
The coronavirus pandemic has only underscored the disparate health care services accessible to millions of Americans, especially for those living in rural areas and communities of color. Black, Indigenous, Latino, and other minority groups have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, often experiencing higher rates of infection and death from COVID than other races.
And those living in rural communities were also dying at more than twice the rate of urban Americans during a surge in COVID cases last year, further highlighting the crisis in health care access that exists across large portions of the nation.
To learn, students must be healthy
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that health disparities are often correlated to classroom performance. Healthy students generally experience higher levels of academic success and unhealthy students are less likely to graduate from school. While public schools and school health programs play a critical role in maintaining the health of students, more must be done to remove the lingering barriers to care for vulnerable individuals.
Miyashiro has seen the impact that these health disparities can have on both students and families, particularly when it comes to classroom learning and absenteeism.
One student in her school community had to be flown to Honolulu for surgery once it was discovered that he had an undiagnosed eye disease that impacted his academic performance. Other students missed school because of preventable dental issues that turned into more serious medical conditions.
Miyashiro notes that the lack of accessible health services geared toward different cultures or beliefs can force students to act as intermediaries for sick family members.
"Absences are really high here because students often act as caregivers,” Miyashiro said. "Many of their parents don’t speak English or don’t write, so they often have to go with them to medical appointments."
Minimizing these health disparities in communities across the country will improve student learning and ensure that educators and families alike can access vital medical services.
It is imperative for Congress to take action to create a stronger, fairer, and more equitable health care system that truly serves all Americans. Federal lawmakers can already take a number of steps to promote equal access to health care services for all, but they must renew their legislative efforts to make this goal a reality.
That’s why educators must use their voices to encourage their congressional representatives to address continuing health disparities in rural communities and communities of color.
Among the many benefits it would have for Americans, the Build Back Better Act would expand Medicaid to the 12 states that have opted to not expand their programs—a needed step that would have a particularly positive impact on health insurance coverage in communities of color. The bill would close the Medicaid gap for four million Americans, reduce health coverage premiums for another nine million individuals, and lower the cost of some prescription drugs. While this critical legislation passed the House, it remains stalled in the Senate. Educators are encouraged to take action and contact their lawmakers to renew their support for this important bill.
Lawmakers have also re-introduced the Health Equity and Accountability Act, which would direct the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and other agencies to enhance their efforts to reduce health disparities.
The bill would include more detailed reporting of demographic and health disparities data, direct HHS to support health care workforce diversity, and increase the accessibility of culturally and linguistically appropriate health care services. Members of the Congressional Tri-Caucus, made up of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, the Congressional Black Caucus, and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, have introduced this bill since 2003, and it is long past time that it become enshrined into law.
Educators who want to engage with their lawmakers about how minimizing health disparities across the country will benefit students, educators, and families are encouraged to take action here.