BOSTON (TheStreet) -- It's old news we are not all treated equal in the United States, but research suggests race looms large when it comes to inequalities in health status and care, and at enormous cost to the nation's economy.
A study last month in the International Journal of Men's Health found that the U.S. economy took a $96.8 billion hit between 2006 and 2009 in excess medical costs due to inequalities in health for African-American men, or $24.2 million annually. Remarkably, no direct excess costs from health disparities were detected for other racial or ethnic groups.
"While much of the research in men's health disparities has focused on understanding the social, behavioral and biological factors that underlie such inequalities, little attention has been given to their economic consequences," the paper said.
The study, based on research at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, analyzed the direct and indirect costs of health inequalities, as well as the potential cost savings of addressing the disparities.
"Health disparities have a devastating impact on individuals and families, and they also affect society as a whole," said Roland J. Thorpe, assistant professor at the school and lead author of the study, in a press release. "These stark findings underscore the fact that we can't afford to overlook men's health disparities that exist in this country."
The study's findings are based on data from the Agency for Health Care Research and Quality's 2006-09 Medical Expenditure Panel Survey. Researchers used the survey to determine the prevalence of a variety of health conditions such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease by race category, including African-American, Asian, Hispanic and white. This information was included in statistical models to estimate the total direct and indirect medical costs and, from there, the proportion of costs due to health disparities for each ethnic group.
"Minority men in general have a worse health profile than their white counterparts. These disparities are dramatically evidenced in life expectancy trends," the study said, noting that African-American men have an average life expectancy eight years shorter than Hispanic men and six years shorter than white men.
For African-American men, direct health costs came to $447.6 billion over the period studied, of which $24.2 billion a year were due to excess costs from health disparities. Indirect costs associated with lower worker productivity due to illness and premature death were calculated separately for minority men using survey data and the Center for Disease Control's National Vital Statistics System. And it was found to pack its own wallop.
Overall, the indirect cost of these health disparities to the economy totaled $436.3 billion over the four-year period -- with lower worker productivity due to illness contributing $28 billion in excess costs and premature death contributing $408.3 billion. Of the total indirect costs, African-American men accounted for $317.6 billion, or 72%; indirect costs totaled $115 billion for Hispanic men, of which premature death accounted for more than 90%.
This study is not the only one in recent years to look at racial health disparities and its costs. A paper published in 2011 in the International Journal of Health Services found that aggregate health disparities cost the U.S. more than a trillion dollars between 2003 and 2006. In 2006 alone, the study found $61 billion was spent in excess health care spending, with an added indirect cost of $11 billion in lost labor productivity and $243.1 billion in premature death.
"The numbers are staggering. Failure to [react] would be morally and socially wrong," said Thorpe, who hoped the Affordable Care Act would be able to address some of the disparities and their costs.
"The ACA will likely afford lower-wage income earners opportunities to access better preventative care," Thorpe said. "Hopefully, this will help prevent many of the chronic conditions associated with the disparities, as well as help those who already suffer from any chronic conditions afford to better manage them and avoid complications and premature death."