BEN EVANS
Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) — Black, Latino and Asian lawmakers warned Democratic leaders that any U.S. health care overhaul that ignores health gaps between whites and minorities will face stiff opposition.

The lawmakers said they would be hard-pressed to support a bill without a new program providing access to health care for all Americans.

“The public health option has to be there,” Rep. Mike Honda, a Democrat who chairs the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, said at a news conference. “If we don’t have a public option, there’s no discussion.”

Republicans are resisting a government health insurance program that would compete with private insurance companies, arguing that the companies would be put at a competitive disadvantage.

Unlike most major industrialized countries, the United States does not have a government health insurance program. An estimated 50 Americans do not have health insurance. Others have health insurance paid by their employers or puchase it individually although there are state-funded plans for the elderly and the poor, know as Medicare and Medicaid.

Members of the Asian caucus, along with the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said they plan to introduce legislation this week that includes their wish list for broadening health care overhaul beyond various plans floated in the House and Senate.

The three minority caucuses have a total of 91 members, most of them Democrats and enough to help shape the final legislation. President Barack Obama has made passing such legislation one of his main priorities.

Citing federal research showing higher rates of cancer, diabetes, heart disease and infant mortality among minorities, they said they would seek more funds for community health centers that provide care in poor neighborhoods.

The lawmakers also called for expanding a National Institutes of Health center that focuses on minority health concerns, works to improve work force diversity in the medical industry and collects more data to better track disparities in health care.

They said the costs of reaching into low-income, minority communities to improve upfront health care would be more than offset in the long run by preventing expensive procedures and hospital stays.

“Believe me, a comprehensive health care reform bill without the aspects that we’re discussing today will be set for failure,” said Rep. Nydia Velazquez, a Democrat who chairs the Hispanic caucus.

Later, at a discussion of minority health issues at the White House, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the Obama administration is committed to addressing the “alarming disparity in the delivery of quality health care.”

Doing so, Sebelius told officials, is critical to lowering health care costs.

Sebelius noted that 75 percent of the U.S. $2.2 trillion health care expenses go toward treating chronic diseases, referring to far higher rates of such diseases among minorities. She said the rising rates of HIV/AIDS among African-Americans is among “the most troubling” developments in U.S. health care.

“Minority Americans not only are more likely to be uninsured, so they don’t have preventative care, don’t have early intervention, but are less likely to have quality care when they come to seek the care that they need,” she said.

The White House issued a summary report on minority health care showing that African-Americans are seven times more likely as whites to have HIV/AIDS, that blacks and Hispanics have diabetes rates nearly twice as high as whites, and that black men are 50 percent more likely than whites to have prostate cancer.

The report said more than one in three Hispanics and American Indians, and about one in five African-Americans, are uninsured. That compares to one in eight whites lacking coverage.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.