The racial disparities illuminated by the COVID-19 pandemic spurred urgent action and directed increased funding toward improving vulnerable communities’ access to health services. But now that the emergency has ended, a diverse coalition of Massachusetts healthcare leaders are working to ensure that momentum isn’t lost.
In recent weeks, members of the Health Equity Compact, a group of more than 70 leaders of color working to advance equitable health reform, convened several of the state’s top leaders to discuss the financial toll that racial health inequities are taking on the residents of Massachusetts. Discussion has centered around the findings of a new report, commissioned by the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation in collaboration with the Compact, that found the health disparities experienced by communities of color cost the state about $5.9 billion each year, a number that researchers warn will nearly double by 2050, unless urgent action is taken.
This is a unique moment in history when it’s the “right time, right place, right people” to make change, according to Michael Curry, co-founder of the Compact and President & CEO of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers. “These are leaders of color, assuming and ascending into roles that we’ve never seen before [many of whom] are the final arbiters of what happens in their organizations, where the money goes, and what partnerships exist.”
Curry and other members of the Compact presented findings earlier this month at a summit that gathered political, business, and health leaders to discuss a coordinated response to alleviating disparities. A week later, Curry appeared at the State House with the CEOs of several community health centers to request urgent funding to help local centers — which serve over a million Massachusetts residents — deal with industry-wide workforce shortages and growing patient demands.
These gatherings are part of a trend of public convenings around health equity. In May, the Boston Public Health Commission, led by Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, hosted a day-long conference to discuss equitable health practices with public health leaders, providers, and elected officials ahead of releasing five reports that highlighted pervasive racial disparities in how major health issues, such as diabetes, asthma, and cancer are trending in the state.
The unprecedented level of support to take action on these issues speaks to the increased representation in both the government and healthcare sector, said Representative Judith Garcia, who represents Chelsea and Everett. “This is a room where we’re not telling communities what to do,” she said. “We are the communities sharing what’s needed to make change.”
For years, health equity advocates have been pushing a moral imperative to bridge gaps in health and life expectancy, but the Blue Cross foundation report shows that it’s also good business, said Juan Fernando Lopera, Beth Israel Lahey Health’s inaugural chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer and a member of the Compact. “No one had quantified that health disparities in things like diabetes lead to higher costs because more people are ending up in hospital and premature death means less workers in the workforce.”
The report estimates that the state spends nearly $1.5 billion each year, or nearly 2 percent of its total health care spending, treating conditions caused by health inequities. It also leads to a decrease in productivity as less healthy adults work fewer hours, take more sick days, and are less productive at work, costing the state an estimated $1.4 billion each year. Achieving racial and ethnic health equity, researchers estimate, would add 27,000 additional full-time workers each year.
“In an era where there’s workforce shortages and Boston is listening to employees and customers more than ever,” this data provides a strong incentive to prioritize initiatives to reduce the disproportionate healthcare burden faced by more vulnerable communities, said Rosa Colon-Kolacko, chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer at Tufts Medicine.
Members of the coalition are also working to enhance equitable representation in medical research. This month, Mass. League launched a new community-based research institute focused on improving diversity within clinical trials and creating a pipeline for more diverse researchers. The Institute for Health Equity Research, Evaluation & Policy will be led by Dr. Cheryl Clark, the associate chief of General Internal Medicine and Primary Care at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and instructor at Harvard Medical School.
“We know research has not been inclusive and the COVID-19 vaccines opened the door to a conversation about drawing more people of color into trials,” Curry said. “The goal of the institute is to center research within the community” and will draw data from the 52 community health centers across the state, who serve more than a million patients.
Looking forward, Compact members will continue to raise awareness and support for the expansive reform bill they filed in January that would create a new Cabinet-level Executive Office of Equity, expand MassHealth coverage to residents of all immigration statuses, and invest in community-led initiatives to improve health outcomes for marginalized populations. According to Rep. Garcia, the bill is being proposed as a top priority for the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus and is supported in both the House and Senate.