Commentator Melissa Harris-Perry
Commentator Melissa Harris-Perry - 
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Kai Ryssdal: There's going to be a whole slew of health care stories in the news next week. Wednesday will be one year since President Obama signed the reform package into law. Since then there have been lawsuits challenging its constitutionality. Federal judges in Florida and Virginia have struck parts of it down. States have applied for and gotten exemptions from certain of its requirements. Truth is, the law passed, but arguments over health care reform continue.

Commentator Melissa Harris-Perry says the debate is still missing one critical element.

Melissa Harris-Perry: The fights are about budgets, government authority, and ideology. Surprisingly absent from the rhetoric and positioning is any serious conversation about the actual state of American health.

Just listening to the politics, one might easily conclude that most Americans enjoy good health, reasonable access to care, and multiple options for high-quality treatment of illness and injury. That's not the case.

From infancy to old age, African Americans have worse health outcomes than non-Hispanic whites. Consider these statistics: Black infants are twice as likely as white babies to die before their first birthday. African American women have lower breast cancer rates, but are more likely than their white counterparts to die of the disease. Black Americans suffer from diabetes and asthma at nearly twice the rate of other Americans. These and other disparities remain even after accounting for economic status. In other words, health disparities are truly an American racial problem, not just an issue of poverty.

Researchers have considered many different reasons for these disparities. The causes are complex and include: biological factors, environmental inequities, and differential access to care caused by persistent residential segregation. None are easily solved because all are rooted in century-old systems of racial injustice that include the residual effects of American slavery, the recent practice of segregated medical care, and persistent inattention to communities of color.

The solutions are not simple, but addressing these disparities must be a central aspect of our health care debate. We cannot afford to lose the contributions of our fellow Americans simply because they are caught in a system that severely limits their opportunities for health and well-being.

Ryssdal: Melissa Harris-Perry is a professor of politics and African American studies at Princeton. Take a second to share your thoughts -- click on this contact link.