UnitedHealth report details increasing health disparities pre-pandemic

COVID-19 put a national spotlight on health disparities, and, now, experts are aiming to outline key areas where that interest can be put into action.

The United Health Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the UnitedHealth Group, released its America's Health Rankings Health Disparities Report last week, and the healthcare giant found a number of disparities worsened in the 2017 to 2019 time frame.

While the data come from before the pandemic, experts say they offer a baseline that can be used to address critical public health needs.

For example, adults who did not graduate high school had a rate of frequent mental distress that was 123% higher than people with a college degree. Females had a 70% higher rate of depression than males, according to the report.

RELATED: UnitedHealth Group wants to close 600M gaps in care by 2025. Here's how

"COVID, it raises visibility," Georges Benjamin, M.D., executive director of the American Public Health Association, told Fierce Healthcare, "so nobody can say they didn't know we had these disparities."

The report highlights increasing maternal mortality rates, an issue that had been a key topic in the healthcare industry of late. The study found Black mothers face a mortality rate that is 3.4 times higher than Hispanic mothers.

In addition, maternal mortality rates increased by 55% for white mothers, 23% for Hispanic mothers and 22% for Black mothers between the 2005 to 2009 window and the 2015 to 2019 time period, the report found.

The U.S. has made progress in reducing infant mortality, according to the study, but gaps remain. While Black infant mortality rates decreased 19% from 2003 to 2006, the rate is still the highest at 11 per 1,000 births.

Ana Fuentevilla, M.D., chief medical officer at Optum Population Health Solutions, told Fierce Healthcare the disparities in maternal mortality have been "persistent and growing."

RELATED: UnitedHealth Group taps new chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer

Disparities in maternal health outcomes are also of key interest to other insurers. The Blue Cross Blue Shield Association recently set a goal to reduce racial disparities in maternal health by 50% over the next five years.

The report includes data by state designed to be actionable for public health groups aiming to address these challenges.

"We're hoping to shed the light for collaboration across the nation and across these communities," Fuentevilla said.