Congressman Elijah Cummings

April is National Minority Health Month, a time each year when Americans of Color are encouraged to give special consideration to preserving our families’ health — and the health of our nation.

As a call to action, we are reminded of former Surgeon General David Satcher’s finding that more than 886,000 premature deaths could have been prevented during the 1990s if African Americans had received the same health care as White Americans.

We have made some progress in challenging minority health disparities since then, especially during the Administrations of Presidents Clinton and Obama.  However, in the final analysis, health is more than a relative goal.

Life or death is not a relative matter.  It is an absolute.

We either make our health a top priority — or we do not.  National policies either help us to sustain our lives and the lives of those we love — or they do not.

These are the core messages of National Minority Health Month.

Here in our home town of Baltimore, widely acknowledged as one of the world’s great medical centers, our continued struggle for better health has even greater poignancy this year as we remember the accomplishments of two of our community’s most prominent healers.

The medical careers of two renowned African American physicians, Dr. Elijah Saunders of the University of Maryland and Dr. Levi Watkins of Johns Hopkins, exemplified the vision for better health attributed to the Roman philosopher, Seneca the Younger.

“The wish for healing has always been half of health.”

The wish for healing was central to the mission of these departed giants of medicine — but only part of their legacy.  The more important half of their gifts to us was their well-informed and effective actions on our behalf.

Dr. Elijah Saunders gained international acclaim for his groundbreaking efforts to inform us about the impact of hypertension on African Americans’ survival and the interaction of diabetes, heart attacks and stroke.

Dr. Saunders is also remembered, however, for his extraordinary efforts to reach out to patients in medically-underserved neighborhoods – bringing world-class healing into the inner, inner city.

Dr. Levi Watkins made history as the first African American to serve as chief resident of cardiac surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital – and in 1980, he became the first surgeon to install an automatic defibrillator in a human heart.  Less well known were his tireless efforts to expand the number of minority medical students at Johns Hopkins and help them succeed.

I was grateful to have Elijah Saunders and Levi Watkins as friends — and as my teachers in public health policy.  During our many conversations over the years, I learned from them that improving our nation’s public health must be driven by three major forces.

First, we must expand access to affordable, high-quality health care.  This is the mission of our Affordable Care Act (“ObamaCare”).

Second, we must sustain and increase our public investment in medical research.  We doubled our public commitment nearly a decade ago, but since that time, public funding has remained flat – a critical issue in our current national budgetary debates.

Finally, we must lead and sustain a national movement toward healthier lifestyles on the part of the American people.

When our First Lady encourages us to eat healthy foods, exercise regularly and show up for the doctor’s appointments that can detect dangerous conditions early, she is not playing a game.  Michelle Obama is doing everything she can to help us prolong our lives.

Consider this.

Since the 1990s of Dr. Hatcher’s report, we have made important progress toward helping Americans live longer and more vital lives — especially, in combatting the two most deadly health challenges:  heart disease and cancer.

Yet, it is far too soon to declare victory.

Despite all of our advances, more than 69,000 African Americans will die prematurely of heart disease this year; and more than 64,000 of us will die of cancer.

In Washington, I remind my Republican colleagues of these harsh facts, asking them why they continue to attack our expansion of health insurance and why they are not willing to invest more public funds in the medical research that will save lives.

I try to drive home the fact that their constituents are dying prematurely as well:  nearly a million White Americans die each year from heart disease and cancer combined.

To be fair, some Republicans do understand the economics of life and death.  To their credit, Representatives Matt Salmon of Arizona and Kevin Yoder of Kansas have both called for significant funding increases for the National Cancer Institute.  The Republicans’ budget proposals, however, do not.

They should take a lesson from my teachers, Dr. Elijah Saunders and Dr. Levi Watkins, and their own more enlightened members.

Our wish for healing is important, but only constructive actions save lives.

Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.