When it comes to the health of New Mexicans, it's hardly a level playing field.
A Health Disparities Report Card released by The New Mexico Department of Health (DOH) earlier this month tells a disparaging tail about the constitution of the state's racial and ethnic minorities as compared to white New Mexicans. Of the 19 health-related categories looked at in the report, there are significant differences between whites and minorities in teen births, infant mortality, diabetes deaths, adult obesity, hepatitis B and drug-induced deaths.
These types of broad inequities aren't apparent to most people, according to Dr. William Martin, an Arizona-based orthopedic surgeon who's done extensive research on Native American health. "There are no published articles on the health care disparities of Native Americans," Dr. Martin says. "This is either because there are no health care disparities, which isn't the case, or it means people have not cared enough to do these studies. That's a harsh and true fact that needs to be changed."
Recognizing the differences in New Mexicans' health care is one step, but figuring out how to eliminate them may be the toughest challenge. According to Deborah Busemeyer, DOH's communications director, a big push in the right direction would be universal access to health care. "A lot of these differences have to do with the high levels of poverty in our state," says Busemeyer. "We can't make the kind of significant progress we need unless we make sure everyone has access to health care. I think people have talked about this kind of coverage plan for a long time and the governor has made sure all the key players are at the table, so there's a real chance a program can be passed this Legislative Session."
Busemeyer knows providing care for all isn't the only key to a healthy state, since resources will always be limited. Instead, getting those resources to the people who need them the most is DOH's best recipe for success.
"As an example, we know from last year's report that Hispanics make up a good portion of our teenage births, so this year, 80 percent of the people who received the department’s reproductive health services were Hispanic," Busemeyer says. "We're also looking at increasing the number of health translators who can help doctors by translating for Spanish and Navajo speakers. We're providing cultural sensitivity trainings, developing a Spanish website and we’ve established a health disparities advisory committee. Finally, we also plan to hold 'community conversations' next year to learn how we can better address these issues."
Busemeyer knows the battle won't be easy but she sees a light at the end of the tunnel. "Now we know what we have to do," Busemeyer says. "It's just a matter of working within our organization, working with other private organizations throughout the state and working with the community to get it done."