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Sen. Bill Cassidy On His State's Racial Disparites In Coronavirus Deaths

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All right, I want to bring in Louisiana's Republican Senator Bill Cassidy, a member of the U.S. Senate, also a medical doctor. Senator, thank you for taking the time for us this morning.

BILL CASSIDY: Thank you, David.

GREENE: Can you tell me what is being done to help the black community in your state right now, which, you know, it clearly is being disproportionately hit by this disease?

CASSIDY: Well, I think it's, first - clearly, there's been a surge of ventilators, of medical equipment to all folks, particularly in southeast Louisiana because that's where we had the peak first. I worked in the Charity Hospital system for 25 years as a physician, and 80% of my patients were African American. That was just the demographic makeup. And so some things in your report, I'm not quite sure people of whatever race are less likely - at least of African American race are less likely to go to the hospital. Again, that was my practice, and I did not see that.

But if you're going to look at the fundamental reason, African Americans are 60% more likely to have diabetes. The virus likes to hit what is called an ACE receptor. Now, if you have diabetes, obesity, hypertension, then African Americans are going to have more of those receptors inherent in their having the diabetes, the hypertension, the obesity.

So there's a physiologic reason which is explaining this. Now, as a physician, I would say we need to address the obesity epidemic, which disproportionately affects African Americans. That would lower the prevalence of diabetes, of hypertension. And that's what would bring benefit.

GREENE: Well, I mean, as we heard in that report, I mean, some underlying health conditions and disparities are part of the issue here. But I mean, we heard Congressman Cedric Richmond say, as well, that this is rooted in years of systemic racism. Aren't there other forces at work here?

CASSIDY: Well, you know, that's rhetoric, and it may be. But as a physician, I'm looking at science. And the science...

GREENE: You're saying that's just rhetoric? I mean, there are more uninsured African Americans compared to other populations in your state. Doesn't that play a role in people...

CASSIDY: You know, they said minorities. African - we've done the Medicaid expansion. Now, intuitively, it might be. But again - I don't want to seem insensitive at all. Again, I'm a physician. This was my practice. But as a physician, I approach it more - OK, what is the physiology? And the physiology is that if you have an ACE inhibitor - excuse me, an ACE receptor, that's where the virus hits.

GREENE: But, obviously, I mean, you are a doctor, as you said. But I mean, obviously, you're also a member of the U.S. Senate. And if there are other issues at play here, isn't it also your role to address them? I mean, I think about the concern that came up that...

CASSIDY: Absolutely. But - absolutely. So - but I think it's important to be analytical because we're not going to come to a solution if we just say, oh, this must be the case. The issue at hand is, how do we decrease death rates from COVID-19? And that is by, among other things, addressing the underlying factors. And those are diabetes, hypertension and obesity, no matter your race. And if we do that, all will benefit.

GREENE: Well, Senator, let me ask you. I mean, the situation at hand, there are some other members of Congress, some Democrats, who have said that one option here might be for the White House and the Trump administration to reopen enrollment for the Affordable Care Act, for Obamacare - and for the president to encourage people and say, that is an option if you are suffering from COVID and need to feel the confidence of being insured to get to a hospital. Is that something you would consider?

CASSIDY: So I certainly would consider it, but the White House has specifically said that if anybody has a hospital bill related to COVID, the federal government will pay 100% of it. I have mixed feelings about that because now you're better off being uninsured because you have no deductible and co-pay because 100% of your expense is going to be covered by the federal government. But if they want to open up the exchanges, I would not object. But the president...

GREENE: You would not object. You would support that and tell the president that that's an idea that might help people in your state.

CASSIDY: It would. But on the other hand, it does seem as if there's been an alternative pathway which otherwise addresses the issue.

GREENE: Can I just ask you to step back? I mean, you've been, obviously, a very central player in your party when it comes to questions about the future of health care in our country. As you look at a moment like this and see African Americans dying at an alarming rate and you think about, you know, as a doctor, as you said - thinking about what conditions can be addressed, but when you think about policies, you know, you've been criticized before by the NAACP for policies that, in their view, don't support minority communities.

Is this a moment where you're willing to step back and say, let's rethink everything and think about whether we as a country are addressing the racial disparities when it comes to health care?

CASSIDY: So my whole practice for 25 years was attempting to address racial disparities. And my practice, if you will, as a member of Congress has been to address those racial disparities. If you actually look at my policies, they would have actually brought equity to those people who are less well-off because, again, if you separate poverty out of the separate issue, then a lot of the racial - not all, but a lot of the racial disparities go away because poor people have less - have poorer health than those who are well-off. And that's what we must address.

GREENE: All right, so much to talk about here. Senator Bill Cassidy, a Republican of Louisiana - Louisiana, one of the states that is being hit particularly hard right now with this coronavirus outbreak. Senator, we're thinking about all the citizens of your state. And thank you so much for the time this morning.

CASSIDY: Thank you, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.