As Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis noted in a recent issue of LATINO, our health is largely a product of social determinants such as income, race, and education. While the lack of health equity for Latinos can be deadly, it is not unavoidable. As she said: “Together we can change the face of health disparities.”

This was the theme of the Latino Issues Forum held January 29, 2009 in Washington, DC, little more than a week after the inauguration of President Obama. A select audience of opinion leaders, influencers, and members of Hispanic organizations such as the National Alliance for Hispanic Health (NAHH) gathered in the newly-renovated Astor Ballroom of the St. Regis Hotel for a networking reception, followed by a panel discussion.

The evening started with remarks by Esther Aguilera, president of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute. Often regarded as one of Washington’s top strategic thinkers, Esther told the audience that this was indeed an interesting time in American history, and that, “Latinos now have the economic and political clout to make a difference.”

The keynote speaker was Jane Delgado, president of the NAHH as well as an author of the book Salud and nationally recognized health care advocate for Latinos. In her remarks, Dr. Delgado delivered the sobering truth that the nature of disease has changed, and that the focus has shifted from “equal treatment” to “good outcomes.” The point of health equity is not necessarily economic, since when Latinos live longer, it becomes more expensive. Rather, it’s imperative to achieve it for America’s fastest-growing population, because “it’s the right thing to do.”

The panelists at the Latino Issues Forum included: Calvin Johnson, Executive Vice President, Sodexo Health Care Services; Mirtha Beadle, Deputy Director of the Office of Minority Health (OMH); Belinda Garza, Manager of Federal Government Relations, Wal-Mart; and Monica Villalta, Director of Diversity Programs at the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of the Mid-Atlantic States. The discussion was moderated by Alfredo J. Estrada, the Editor of LATINO Magazine.

Sodexo Health Care Services’ Executive Vice President Calvin Johnson noted that “Sodexo’s commitment to its culturally diverse client base led to the creation of an innovative health program geared towards people of Hispanic heritage.” A few years ago, Sodexo received a $20,000 grant from the Florida Department of Health’s H.O.P.E. (Hispanic Obesity Prevention & Education) program to develop a Spanish version of the “Create Your Weight” program. The 10-week weight management program uses a combination of professional guidance and individual tracking to help participants lose weight. The grant enabled Sodexo to tailor the existing Create Your Weight syllabus for Hispanics trying to live healthier lives. Participants attend classes taught by bilingual dietitians and track their progress on an Internet web site called MiDieta.com. In addition, Sodexo chefs demonstrate how to prepare healthy versions of Hispanic recipes such as Chicharron de Pollo (fried chicken) and Carne en Jocon/Adobo (beef in tomato and pepper sauce). The program has received positive feedback from participants who have had success using the culturally-customized weight loss plan.

Next to speak was Mirtha Beadle, who discussed the need to “change the paradigm of addressing health disparities.” OMH is the federal focal point for addressing the health status of Hispanics and other minorities. She argued that it was necessary to look at some of the broad social determinants of health equity, such as education and family. Citing a recent study by the University of Michigan, these issues have a direct impact on health disparities and cannot be ignored. Mirtha invited the audience to attend OMH’s Third National Leadership Summit on Eliminating Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health,which took place February 25-27 at the Gaylord National near Washington, DC.

Belinda Garza explained that as the largest employer of Latinos in the country, Wal-Mart acts as an “agent of change.” In the area of health insurance, Wal-Mart offers its associates (Wal-Mart employees) over 50 different plans. A study undertaken by the Urban Institute revealed that 95% of Wal-Mart associates are insured. Other Wal-Mart programs, such as offering generic prescription drugs at $4 have had a positive impact, saving consumers $1.6 billion since September 2007. An article in the Washington Post a week after the Latino Issues Forum lauded Wal-Mart for its innovative efforts to offer affordable health care and noted that it “is doing in the real world what many in Washington are only beginning to talk about.”

Finally, Monica Villalta stressed the importance of gathering quantifiable data. Without a better understanding of health disparities, many efforts will be ineffective. At Kaiser Permanente, Monica has focused her efforts on the delivery of culturally competent services for women, children, and low income families. But it’s important to define culturally competent care, since its not the same for everyone and may vary according to the circumstances. In this regard, Kaiser Permanente stresses flexibilty rather than formulaic solutions.

In the discussion that followed with the audience, several important points were raised. Jose Nino of the Hispanic Alliance for Progress commented that health disparities can be bridged when the private and public sectors work together. Adolf Falcon of the NAHH noted that the Obama Administration’s stimulus plan directed more resources to Medicaid and that states were actively looking to partner with small businesses to bring down costs. “It’s a time for opportunity and experimentation.”

One consensus that emerged was the importance of external factors in achieving health equity. A child’s health will be affected by his parent’s level of education as well as their lifestyle. Just as the Sodexo Foundation fights hunger by addressing its root causes, a n number of underlying issues must be addressed to attack health disparities in the Latino community. As Jane Delgado summed it up, it’s all about “details, details, details.”