What Took the CBC So Long?

Black lawmakers speak out in support of Obama's public health care option. It's about time.

CBClogolargerUntil recently, the Congressional Black Caucus has been strangely quiet about the president’s proposed government health care option, an increasingly complex and controversial topic that has no shortage of opponents.

Then, just hours before President Obama’s prime-time speech on health care last week, members of the CBC held a press conference to announce that they were publicly supporting the measure.

Well, it’s about time.

After making headlines earlier in the year for a high-profile visit to Cuba and criticizing the president for opting out of a UN conference, the group is finally wielding its power and influence on an issue that holds some significance for its constituents.

Health care reform could have been the black lawmakers’ defining issue had they not been so late to the party. And here’s why.

Members of the CBC represent voters who make up a disproportionate number of the uninsured and underinsured in this country. That alone should have made them early backers of a public option plan. In their districts, the emergency room has become the doctor’s office for many.

And yet the group’s announcement prior to the president’s speech was a safe move disguised as something more. The CBC’s public relations machine fired off a generic e-mail about the press conference, titled “African Americans to Make Announcement on Healthcare Reform,” days before the televised event.

Too bad it came weeks after the fire-and-brimstone town hall meetings and fear-mongering by conservatives already set the tone for the discussion.

Even more palpable, the move played itself out as black politicians coming to the aide of the black president as he’s abandoned by disillusioned, and possibly racist, whites.

The fact that the CBC waited so long to publicly defend the plan is puzzling. In June, black Congressional members, along with Latino and Asian politicians, introduced the Health Equity and Accountability Act of 2009, which outlines the need to increase access to care among minority populations. And just last year, the CBC Foundation held its second annual conference on health disparities. Among its findings: blacks are twice as likely as white to be diagnosed at the advanced stages of most diseases.

The organization also has a health brain trust, headed up by Rep. Donna Christensen (D-VI), which touts itself as the authority on minority health policy.

In fact, on Christensen’s website, she claims that the CBC continues “to be on the front lines of … supporting legislation that will ensure health equity and justice across all populations.”

The front lines? It seems more like the CBC waited for the battle to rage before making its move. But better late than never, right?

As the health care debate continues, the CBC would do well to read up on all those disparity studies it sponsored. They lay out a pretty good case for why black lawmakers need to be visible and vocal when it comes to health care reform. Later for the politics and the publicity stunts. Their voters’ lives depend on it.

Chana Garcia is a journalist, blogger, and ovarian cancer survivor who lives in New York City. On her blog, black gyrl cancer slayer, she documents her battle with cancer and writes about health care reform with humor and irreverence — and a bit of sass. Her story is featured in the September 2009 issue of Black Enterprise magazine.

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