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Track data on health and race, state told

Goal is reducing disparity in care

A report on healthcare disparities issued yesterday calls for the creation of a statewide agency to track differences in health status among racial and ethnic groups and to work to bridge gaps in care.

The report from the Commission to End Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities represents the latest effort to understand and address issues such as why black babies are more likely to die before their first birthdays than white infants, why blacks are less likely to receive life-saving heart treatments, and why black diabetics get inferior care.

Two years ago, Mayor Thomas M. Menino described healthcare disparities as the most pressing medical problem facing the city, and Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women's hospitals inaugurated major efforts to investigate the problem.

A legislatively mandated study released yesterday explores the medical, social, and economic roots of disparities, reporting, for example, that exposure to acts of racism can cause a stress-related hormone to skyrocket.

The report also finds that African-Americans and Hispanics are less likely to have private health insurance than whites.

Healthcare disparities are "the most important health crisis we are facing," said state Representative Peter J. Koutoujian, chairman of the Legislature's Joint Committee on Public Health.

"We have large groups of people who are suffering early death and high mortality rates, who are suffering and dying simply because of their race and ethnicity," he added. "This is something that is untenable."

Koutoujian, a Waltham Democrat, presided over the disparities commission along with state Senator Dianne Wilkerson, a Boston Democrat.

Their report recommends that the state establish a Center for the Elimination of Health Disparities. Initially, Koutoujian said, commission members envision that the disparities center would be seated in the Executive Office of Health and Human Services. Ultimately, he said, he would like to see the center transformed into an independent agency, with powers akin to those of the inspector general.