Fri. Dec 9th, 2022

In response to a recent RoundTable discussion with legislators and local providers on the health crisis in Gary hosted by Senator Eddie Melton (D-Gary), State Rep. Vernon G. Smith (D-Gary) comments on the community’s health desert and urges the state to address the harmful systemic disparities.

Recently, I attended a RoundTable hosted by Senate Assistant Democratic Leader Eddie Melton, D-Gary, with healthcare providers and stakeholders of Lake County to discuss the status of healthcare in Gary. This was the first time in the recent past that Gary providers had ever convened to discuss the health status of our community. The response from the healthcare providers attending, as well as state legislators like Rep. Ragen Hatcher, D-Gary, was compelling and I also want to thank them for showing their support for Gary. This initiative to bring local leaders, lawmakers and providers together to craft a plan forward in advancing the health of Gary is greatly needed.

By shedding light on the discrepancies of healthcare within the community, Melton is setting the stage for a future in which equitable health is accessible to all. Our collective actions remind me of a certain passage in the Book of Habakkuk: in order to create a future where all can have true quality of life, we as lawmakers and leaders must “write the vision and make it plain on tablets, that he may run who reads it” (Habakkuk 2:2). We started the conversation but there is plenty of work to be done.

Being Black in America is bad for your health.

Being a Hoosier living in Gary is bad for your health.

These statements have only become more true as the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the long-standing health care inequalities facing people of color from disproportionately underserved communities. A multitude of factors, including access to pharmacies, food deserts, mental health care and even public transportation can all determine whether someone lives or dies, or whether someone merely survives or thrives. Gary has all of these problems, including a drastic health desert. All of these issues can and should be addressed with cultural competence training, greater empathy and respect for those of different colors and creeds.

However, none of that can be done or have meaningful impact until state leaders put resources and policy proposals behind addressing these inequities.

In Gary, there are only five practicing pediatricians.

Let me make that clear — in a city of over 75,000 people, there are only FIVE pediatricians.

This is a deeply disturbing reality for all families and children who must live it. On the other hand, the city of Noblesville (with a comparable population size to Gary), has about 125 pediatricians. A discrepancy this large and deadly must be addressed as soon as possible, especially considering that Indiana’s infant mortality rate is 20 percent higher than the national average.

It’s a well-known fact that the better health care a child receives early in life, the healthier their outcomes are as an adult. Furthermore, Indiana’s African American population already faces disproportionate rates of diabetes, hypertension and a decreased life expectancy. The sooner we can get our children on the path of a healthy life, the better.

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A lack of pediatricians is not the only problem facing our community. There are elderly and low-income residents that need to be cared for by increasing Medicare and Medicaid funding. There is a great need for more investment in crisis mental health mobile units. There are high rates of pollution further exacerbating health problems like asthma, gaps in accessing safe and reliable transportation that would allow patients to travel for care, and even insufficient pharmacies. In fact, I have heard rumor of a local pharmacy having more alcohol available than medication. That is sad and insulting to all. Each of these concerns are tied to the next systematically, serving as barriers that prevent people of color, the elderly and those from low-income backgrounds in Gary from living dignified and healthy lives.

Systematic disparities require systematic changes, including government funding, adequate health funding, local partnerships, effective policies and increased research.

While these issues may seem like exaggerated statements, data-driven research has proven them true time and time again. The healthcare situation within Gary is complex and sobering, but hope is not all lost. Just as Senator Melton stated, the RoundTable discussion was a great start in beginning to address and understand the health challenges our community is facing.

Throughout my 32 years at the legislature, I have promoted a platform of healthcare, employment, education and addressing all other inequities Hoosiers face. I will continue to work tirelessly in promoting our health needs and concerns to the Indiana General Assembly. Our state has a surplus of over $6.1 billion dollars; there is no reason why we cannot use even just a portion of that money to invest in the plethora of healthcare needs that the community of Gary is facing.

In closing, I want to state that, regardless of how much money you have or what your social status is, if you don’t have health, you don’t have quality of life. Physicians — I am asking you to stop being afraid of our community. Legislators — I am asking you to stop ignoring the needs of our people. Take heed of Senator Melton’s actions and the overwhelming response of providers and join us in working to put an end to these discrepancies in medical care.

Equality in health care is equality in life.

Vernon G. Smith is a Indiana State Representative for parts of Gary and Merrillville.

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