regina20benjamin2040020cg
Win McNamee/Getty Images

April is Minority Health Month, designated by the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Minority Health to raise awareness of health disparities and to encourage action to reduce them. On Tuesday the Office of Minority Health hosted a White House panel focused on the ways the Obama administration is helping communities take action, from advancing mental health to appointing hairstylists as health "ambassadors."

A New Council on Holistic, Preventive Care

U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin spoke largely on preventive health, which she described as more relevant than ever in light of the nation's increasingly diverse demographics and, subsequently, an increasing population with chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease. While she stressed the importance of personal choices, she also discussed how the federal government is prioritizing preventive health in new ways.

The Affordable Care Act, for example, established a new National Prevention, Health Promotion, and Public Health Council, chaired by Benjamin and made up of the heads of 17 federal agencies. "Our goal is to move our health care system from a focus on sickness and disease to a focus on wellness and prevention," said Benjamin of the council's holistic and integrated approach to community health.

Last summer the council released the first-ever National Prevention Strategy. "It includes everything from safe highways and worksite wellness programs to clean air and healthy foods," she said. "If we follow the recommendations, we can prevent or at least significantly decrease the five leading causes of death."

Advancing Mental Health in Communities of Color

J. Nadine Gracia, director of the Office of Minority Health, touched on policy solutions to confront the stigma surrounding the mere acknowledgment of mental-health issues and getting treatment, especially in minority communities. She noted that the Affordable Care Act provision that offers preventive health services with no co-pay or deductible also includes free depression screenings, behavioral assessments and other mental-health services. The law also created a new department -- the Office of Behavioral Health Equity -- under the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

"It recognizes that there are disparities when it comes to behavioral health issues," she said of the Office of Behavioral Health Equity, which just had its official launch this month. "They're developing pilot programs to have grant applicants articulate how their programs are going to reduce disparities."

Meeting People Where They Are

The surgeon general caught some flack last summer for attending the Bronner Brothers International Hair Show, where she encouraged black women to work around concerns about their hair when it comes to exercise. But on Tuesday she doubled down on her recommendation. "It's about meeting people where they are," she said. "We sponsored an exercise-friendly hair competition at the Bronner Brothers Hair Show, and at that show we had over 600 hairstylists competing."

Benjamin went on from there to make hairdressers -- who have a frequent, captive audience as their clientele -- health ambassadors. "We gave them information about the Million Hearts Campaign [to fight heart disease and stroke], and while people were sitting in the chair, they would talk about the ABCs of their blood pressure and cholesterol. We have to figure out new ways to get people engaged."

Cynthia Gordy is The Root's senior political correspondent.