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Independence Blue Cross President and CEO Greg Deavens writes Op-Ed on health equity for The Philadelphia Inquirer

Greg Deavens ringing the Liberty Bell at the 36th annual National Bell Ringing Ceremony. Photo by Hugh E. Dillon.

This opinion piece by Greg Deavens, president and CEO of Independence Blue Cross, originally appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer on February 22, 2022.

My parents first brought me to see the Liberty Bell on a family vacation in 1968. I was 7 years old. I recall the long drive from our home in St. Louis to Philadelphia, and the excitement of seeing America’s historical landmarks. I remember staring at that beautiful if flawed bell.

My life’s journey has brought me back to Philadelphia and Independence Blue Cross, where I am proud to serve our region’s communities and help millions access health care. And in January, I had the immense privilege of ringing the Liberty Bell at the 36th annual National Bell Ringing Ceremony honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

It was an amazing, full-circle experience. As I stood alongside the Liberty Bell, so named by abolitionists in 1839, I reflected on America’s ongoing struggle toward a more just and inclusive society. That struggle was the focus of Dr. King’s life and work, and it remains in my thoughts today during the celebration of Black History Month.

The inscription at the top of the bell reminds us of the noble ideal that was the inspiration for its name: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” The Liberty Bell’s crack, though, is for me a symbol of the gaps in our society that limit the degree to which all citizens can experience true liberty — gaps in career opportunities, access to capital, education, income levels, voting rights, and even in health.

The pandemic has shined a harsh light on the inequality that persists and is growing in America. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates nationally that African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans are two to three times more likely to die from COVID-19 compared with white Americans. Likewise, one study found that more than half of African American, Hispanic, and Native American households faced serious financial problems during the pandemic, compared with less than 30% of white households.

African Americans face much higher rates of chronic health issues than white Americans — 60% more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes (according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) and 40% more likely to have high blood pressure. The toll that these conditions exact here in Philadelphia inspired Independence Blue Cross to actively promote an educational campaign for the region’s African American communities, bringing together community ambassadors to spread the message of prevention and early detection.

If we are to realize the vision of equality for all, we must redouble our efforts to narrow the many gaps. We must come together to ensure equal access to health care and the economic and social conditions necessary for a healthy life. It will indeed take a village to make it happen, but the benefits will be immense.

Dr. King has been gone for more than 50 years, but the challenges he set for our society remain. As we reflect on his legacy and the work of so many others who have fought for racial justice and equality, it is a good time to recommit to addressing those challenges, so that future generations might ring a bell of liberty that is free of cracks, at last.