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Conference participants discuss improving access to health care

Addressing inequalities in access to health care will require expanded community outreach and improvements in transportation, housing and employment, participants in a two-day conference said Friday.

Efforts also must be made to promote healthy lifestyles, wellness programs and preventive services, said experts who attended the session at Friends of the Elderly Youth and Family Center on East Utica Street.

"Are there health care disparity issues in the United States? Yes. The answer is yes. It's a big yes," said Dr. Kunle Odunsi, chairman of the Department of Gynecologic Oncology and director of the Center for Immunotherapy at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.

For example, Odunsi cited figures indicating that cancer death rates among Caucasians nationally have remained relatively stable since 1950. By contrast, cancer-related deaths among African-Americans were 40 percent higher in 2000 than they were a half-century earlier. Odunsi said even differences in the "biology of the disease" can't fully explain the disparity.

Odunsi was the first speaker at a convention sponsored by BUILD Buffalo, a local community group. The sessions were scheduled to continue through 1 p.m. today and included workshops, question-and-answer periods and brainstorming sessions to explore new strategies for improving access to services.

Queenia Asheema'at, a Buffalo mother of two young children, said some people are intimidated by complex health care bureaucracies, including many members of Buffalo's growing refugee population.

"They know the services are out there, but they think that the process for getting help is too overwhelming. They sometimes don't follow through with it," she said.

In other instances, people don't know where to turn for medical assistance, said Alene R. Lewis, a retired registered nurse.

"They don't know where the services are, and that's a problem," said Lewis, adding that transportation issues also can be impediments to health care access.

One key strategy must involve a heightened focus on preventing illness, experts said.

Anthony G. Billoni, director of the Erie-Niagara Tobacco-Free Coalition, was among the presenters at Friday's session. Advocates said convincing more people to eat healthier, exercise and give up smoking could significantly reduce illness and the costs associated with treating maladies.

"People need to understand the consequences of bad choices," Odunsi said.

Other participants in BUILD's 18th annual convention included LaVonne E. Ansari, Ph.D., chief executive officer of one of the city's newest health care facilities. Community Health Center of Buffalo, located on Benwood Avenue near Main Street in the former St. Francis Nursing Home, held opening ceremonies in January.

Access to quality medical services should not be an issue in a region that is home to numerous respected health care institutions and a growing medical corridor, according to some local leaders.

"Our community needs to be educated about how to take best advantage of these facilities," Odunsi said.