A coalition of Black and Latino leaders in health care, philanthropy, and business have filed legislation to combat racial and ethnic health disparities in Massachusetts.
The bill was filed by the Health Equity Compact, a group of 55 experts and executives launched last May to create an expansive health reform bill aimed at closing many of the racial and ethnic inequities highlighted by the pandemic. The coalition includes leaders from organizations such as Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Boston Public Health Commission, and Point32 Health, the Commonwealth’s second-largest health insurer.
The pandemic “was a call to action for us to leverage our lived experience, having come from those communities that were most impacted,” said Juan Fernando Lopera, Beth Israel Lahey Health’s inaugural chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer and a member of the compact. “Across the country, our health care system fails many who are lower income and come from underrepresented communities.”
The bill aims to prioritize equity in the state government by creating a new Cabinet-level Executive Office of Equity, led by a secretary of equity, and requiring state agencies to track and publicly report health equity data.
It also aims to improve universal access to quality care by expanding MassHealth coverage to people of all immigration statuses, requiring provider organizations to meet national standards for culturally relevant services and addressing the cost of medication for chronic diseases that disproportionately affect diverse and low-income communities.
Dr. Benjamin Lê Cook, director of the Health Equity Research Lab at Cambridge Health Alliance, said he is “enthusiastic” about the bill.
“A number of our lab’s studies show that expanding insurance eligibility is necessary, but not sufficient, to reduce health care disparities,” said Lê Cook, who is not involved with the legislation.
Racial health disparities in the Commonwealth have been well-documented. A 2012 study found a more than 30-year difference in life expectancy between the wealthier, predominantly white Back Bay neighborhood and predominantly Black Roxbury. The Commonwealth’s Black and Hispanic residents are also twice as likely to be uninsured as white residents, according to a 2021 study by the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation.
Lopera, who lost his father-in-law and two uncles to COVID, said the legislation was “a labor of love” by numerous leaders, many of whom were personally affected by the pandemic.
“COVID has taught us that it’s not just about health access, it’s also about social determinants,” said newly elected state Senator Pavel Payano, one of the bill’s sponsors, referring to the nonmedical factors that influence people’s health, such as unemployment, food insecurity, and substandard housing. ”This bill goes a long way to ensure that Massachusetts continues to lead when we’re talking about equity in health and push for improved access and quality of care as well.”
The proposed legislation was also sponsored by state Senator Liz Miranda and Representatives Bud Williams and Judith Garcia.
The legislation builds on and aims to codify the MassHealth 1115 Demonstration Waiver, a series of reforms made to the state’s Medicaid program approved for five years last September to address health-related social needs and improve equitable health care access in the Commonwealth. The approval made significant investments in behavioral health and primary care, while supporting near-universal health insurance coverage.
“We are fortunate to live in a state that had led the nation in innovation and programs to support health equity,” said Dr. Elsie Taveras, chief community health equity officer at Mass General Brigham. “But there is still much more to do to uncouple race, ethnicity, income, language, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability from poor health outcomes.”