Honoring Asian-American/Pacific Islander Health Equity Advocates

Stomach Cancer Advisory Councilmembers, left to right: Ryan Davis (Managed Care Manager, United Health Care), Dr. Joo Ha Hwang (Chief of Gastroenterology, Harborview Medical Center), Suzanne Pak (Director of Community & Behavioral Health, Korean Women's Association), Peter Ansara (Executive Director, Korean Women's Association),  Eun Jeong Lee (Senior Employment Director, National Asian Pacific Center on Aging), Ken Taylor (CEO, Valley Cities), Abbie Zahler (International Community Health Services), and Dorothy Wong (Executive Director, Chinese Information Service Center)

With rising diversity in King County, I'd like to take this opportunity to share some insights on a group that often gets overlooked but desperately needs equitable access to services. Asian-Americans are the largest group of minorities in King County, comprising 16 percent of our population. And 40 percent of Asian-American seniors in our county live in poverty (household income less than $25,000).

Korean Women's Association board and staff members hosted a health fair with Public Health—Seattle & King County's Dirt Alert team in June 2015.

In particular, Korean, Vietnamese, and Cambodian Americans face a hidden, pervasive disparity often masked by the myth of the "model Asian" that is healthy, prosperous, and doesn't need any assistance. They belong to the group of "Other Asian-Americans" that have been dying at an earlier age over two decades (WA DOH, 2013). They are less likely to access life-saving screening for high-risk cancers that that are pervasive in their ethnicity (such as colorectal cancer screening and early detection of stomach cancer). They are more likely to smoke tobacco (WA DOH, 2012), especially if they are limited English proficiency immigrants (An et al, 2013). And they are more likely to suffer from dependency on alcohol (Lum et al, 2009).

Korean-American seniors playing bingo (March 2015, Shoreline).

King County is a trailblazer. Aging and Disability Services funds agencies like Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS), Chinese Information and Service Center (CISC), and Korean Women's Association (KWA) so that person-centered options including counseling and referral, case management, family caregiver resources, and congregate meal site services are accessed by thousands of low income, limited English proficiency seniors and disabled residents.

KWA executive director Peter Ansara advocates for improved certification process for limited English proficiency home caregivers, because our frail elders need assistance from someone they trust and can understand.

CISC executive director Dorothy Wong advocates for disaggregation of health screening and outcome data, because significant differences exist within ethnic groups of Asian-Americans (e.g., Japanese- versus Vietnamese-Americans).

ACRS executive director Diane Narasaki advocates for health equity on a national level through the White House Initiative on Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Medicare and colorectal cancer prevention seminar at Asian Counseling and Referral Service (October 2014, Seattle).

Michael Itti, executive director of Washington Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs, advocates for higher inclusion of Asian Pacific Americans in the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), by providing the survey in additional languages beyond English and Spanish.

As the newest member of the Washington State Health Benefit Exchange's advisory council, I look forward to advocating for the affordability and quality of the qualified health plans—building on the momentum of a million new state residents getting insured through the Affordable Care Act.

Korean American Health Professionals Association conference, with Senator Karen Keiser and Representative Cindy Ryu (September 2014, Seattle).

We still have a long way to go. But when I reflect on the determined action, passionate advocacy, and compassionate inclusion of the Seattle-King County Advisory Council on Aging & Disability Services, I am filled with pride and hope. This and other Area Agency on Aging advisory councils made it possible to launch a statewide Alzheimer's Plan, raise awareness of fraud and financial crimes against the elderly and disabled, and provide much-needed cost of living rate increases to our case managers. Advisory councils are the living embodiment that "a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has" (Margaret Mead).

Contributor Suzanne Pak, director of community and behavioral health programs at Korean Women's Association, is a former member of the Seattle-King County Advisory Council on Aging & Disability Services. She invites you to participate in the second annual Washington State Stomach Cancer Conference on Friday, October 30, 2015, at the Federal Way Dumas Bay Centre. For more information, e-mail spak@kwacares.org or visit www.kwacares.org.