As Congress works to pass a stimulus package to support the many individuals and families whose lives have been impacted by COVID-19, legislators have included protections and support for those most vulnerable to the virus. These provisions, aimed at increasing health care equity, access and affordability, are a step in the right direction. But to adapt words from the late civil rights icon John Lewis’ statement on democracy: Health equity is not a state. It is an act. And we all play a role.
COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on communities of color and the police killings of George Floyd and other Black Americans demonstrates the urgent need to address the devastating impact racism has on the health and well-being of individuals and communities. These are generational issues that can’t be solved by one piece of legislation or even a global health crisis.
The elements that have thus far been included in the stimulus package to help improve health equity in the long term are a strong first step — but there is more we can do. To start, lawmakers can include additional funding and resources to state, local and community-based organizations for targeted outreach to vulnerable individuals — particularly around vaccination efforts. Additional elements that are critical to addressing health equity include: more language assistance resources and outreach for populations with limited English proficiency; extending the public health emergency telehealth flexibilities for two more years; and dedicated funding to collect, analyze and disseminate accurate public health data that clearly articulates the disparate health care experiences of racial and ethnic minorities.
Additional provisions will strengthen protections for new moms, with a goal of ending racial and ethnic health disparities in maternal health outcomes. The House Energy and Commerce Committee included language in the reconciliation bill that allows states, for five years, to extend Medicaid eligibility to women for 12 months after they give birth. The Senate expanded funding and services for the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Visitation Program to improve the health and well-being of mothers and children. Both are key policy steps to improve health disparities. These actions, if enacted, will have long-term impacts on reducing inequities and improving health outcomes across the board.
But it will take more than just the federal government to turn this around. Organizations across the health sector must do meaningful, measurable work on health equity. Hospital systems have recognized their role — last month, 23 of the nation’s largest Catholic health care systems committed to confronting systemic racism by prioritizing equity in their COVID-19 responses and also addressing longer-term systemic changes. These leaders pledged to examine and change internal hiring, promotion and retention practices to ensure diversity and inclusion; form stronger partnerships of trust with communities of color to improve health outcomes; and leverage their united and powerful voice to advocate for policy changes that address the root causes of racism and social injustice. Collectively, these organizations employ nearly a half million people across 46 states and the District of Columbia and care for almost 4 million patients annually.
The goal of this commitment is to deliver both short-term pandemic relief and long-term systemic changes that will level the playing field for communities of color. For example, CommonSpirit Health is partnering with the Morehouse School of Medicine on a 10-year, $100 million initiative to develop and train more culturally competent providers and to expand opportunities for Black and other underrepresented physicians. Trinity New England is focusing on critically important social determinants of health by supporting nutrition and physical activity programs at early education sites. Providence is investing $50 million over five years to reduce health disparities and achieve health equity. And in Milwaukee, Ascension has created a dedicated emergency department to better serve higher risk obstetrics patients and Black women in particular, aiming to improve maternal mortality rates.
Racism is an affront to the core values of Catholic social teaching and to the broader promise of a truly representative and just society. It’s critical that health care organizations and policymakers join in solidarity to enact solutions toward eliminating disparities, to seek justice by ending racist policies and protecting our most vulnerable, and to hold ourselves accountable for effecting positive change in the communities we serve.
And once the pandemic is behind us, we must continue the fight for health equity — and that means working together for the common good. After all, health equity is an act; we are all called to participate.
Sr. Mary Haddad, RSM, is president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association of the United States, which represents the nation’s largest nonprofit providers of health care.
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