By Pedro Rodriguez

Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy is one of progress toward a better life for every American, including equal opportunity in voting, housing, education, and employment. Reflecting on his legacy also means recognizing the steps we must take to address the inequalities that persist.

Many of these involve health care. Poor and minority Americans suffer from more preventable diseases on average, lower-quality care, fewer treatment options, and less health insurance coverage. Fortunately, health-care reform has begun to address these disparities.

Research shows minorities are less likely to get the preventive care they need to stay healthy, and when they get sick, they are more likely to become seriously so. The latest National Healthcare Disparities Report shows, for example, that minorities have higher rates of diabetes, obesity, and colorectal cancer than whites.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 addresses this by requiring health-care providers to offer free screenings for many of the preventable illnesses that afflict minority and low-income populations disproportionately.

Studies also show that when minorities get care, it is typically of lower quality than the care whites get. Experts attribute this to a lack of diversity in the health-care workforce, which does not reflect the American population, as well as a lack of skilled practitioners in low-income areas.

Recognizing this, the health-care law expands efforts to increase racial and ethnic diversity in the health professions. It also strengthens cultural competency training for all health-care providers. Perhaps most important, it includes incentives to encourage more providers to work in underserved areas.

Minorities live disproportionately in areas with less access to health services. Community clinics are often a vital source of services in such areas. Unfortunately, they are typically underfunded and understaffed.

The reform law increases funding for these community health centers, allowing more of them to provide comprehensive care regardless of ability to pay. It's estimated that this will enable these clinics to double the number of patients they serve.

Perhaps one of the greatest contributors to continuing health disparities in the United States is insurance coverage. There is a demonstrated link between poor health and lack of insurance. And while minorities make up roughly a third of the U.S. population, they account for more than half the nation's uninsured.

This is why the health-care law's expansion of Medicaid eligibility is crucial. As of 2014, it will cover those making less than 400 percent of the federal poverty level (or $22,350 for a family of four). This is expected to encompass an estimated 32 million individuals and to significantly improve the health of vulnerable populations.

The nation's health will be determined partly by how effectively we work to reduce and eliminate health disparities. Though much work remains to be done, health-care reform has made huge strides toward a more just health-care system.