Black and Latino health care and business leaders on Monday launched a new initiative, the Health Equity Compact, that aims to combat racial and ethnic disparities in Massachusetts laid bare by the pandemic.
Among the 41 leaders are such names as Lee Pelton, president of The Boston Foundation; Dr. Kevin Churchwell, CEO of Boston Children’s Hospital; and Cain Hayes, president of Point32 Health, the state’s second-largest health insurer.
The group’s main objective is to design — and lobby the state Legislature to pass — an expansive reform bill aimed at closing the deeply entrenched gaps between health outcomes for Black and Latino residents and their white neighbors.
The gaps themselves are wide. Average life expectancy in the wealthy, predominantly white Back Bay neighborhood, for example, was 92 years, according to a 2012 study from Virginia Commonwealth University. Three miles away, in predominantly Black Roxbury, the expected lifespan was just 59 years.
In the decade since the VCU study, racial disparities worsened, “and then there was COVID,” said Dr. Joan Reede, a dean and professor at Harvard Medical School and a member of the compact, at a news conference announcing the group’s launch.
During the first summer of COVID, in 2020, Latinos made up 12 percent of the Massachusetts population but 29 percent of confirmed cases. Black people, who made up 7 percent of the state’s population, accounted for 14 percent of the COVID cases.
And the gaps persist across a wide array of metrics. According to a 2021 study by the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation, Black and Hispanic residents were uninsured at twice the rate of white people in 2019. Infant mortality was far more common for Black and Hispanic families than for white ones, occurring at rates of 6.6, 5.1, and 2.1 per 1,000 live births, respectively.
By the end of 2020, Black and Hispanic Massachusetts residents had died at more than double the rate of white residents on an age-adjusted basis.
“The data tell us clearly that the playing field is not equal and for many it’s worsening,” Reede said.
Reede added that all too often the people analyzing the data — and creating policy — do not come from the affected communities.
“We need lived experience at the table,” said Juan Lopera, chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer at Beth Israel Lahey Health and a member of the compact, in an interview. “Many of us have been close to the pain.” Within the past year, he said, Lopera lost his father-in-law and two uncles to COVID.
Michael Curry, CEO of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers, said in an interview Friday that he helped to found the compact as a way to transform the tragedy of COVID into lasting change.
In response to the pandemic, Curry said, state government and health care-related companies created a plethora of task forces. But he and other leaders worried the efforts might not amount to much in the long run.
“We’ll be looking back five years from now and saying we had great reports, but we didn’t move the needle,” he said, describing an early conversation with Jeffrey Sánchez, former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and another member of the compact.
The group is working with the law firm Foley Hoag to draft legislative language for an “omnibus” health equity reform bill, Curry said.
The policy package, which is a work in progress, focuses on representation in state government; measuring health disparities by race and ethnicity; diversifying and growing the health care workforce; reforming payment policies to incentivize doctors to achieve equal outcomes between groups; and expanding health insurance coverage. It also seeks to improve “social determinants” of health, such as unhealthy living conditions or the unequal funding of public health departments in richer and poorer municipalities.
Curry said the Massachusetts health care law signed in 2006, which he called “a model for the rest of the country and the Affordable Care Act,” will help inspire the compact. He hopes that the group’s health equity bill will become the next chapter in the state’s leadership in health care policy.
In the wake of the pandemic and the 2020 protests against racial inequality, he said, there is a sense of urgency that may create tailwinds for such efforts.
“If we want to say that Black and brown lives matter,” he said, “then we have to come to the realization that we must address health equity, because we’re losing lives.”
Mike Damiano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.