Continuing their mission to ensure that key lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic are not forgotten, several of the state’s leading health experts and state officials testified at the State House on Wednesday in support of legislation that would tackle the racial and ethnic health disparities the pandemic illuminated.
The bill, filed in January, would create a Cabinet-level Executive Office of Equity, expand full MassHealth coverage for all those eligible, regardless of immigration status, and lower the cost of medications for chronic conditions such as diabetes that disproportionately affect communities of color, among other provisions.
“The challenges we are confronting ... are nothing short of a public health crisis,” said Attorney General Andrea Campbell, who testified in support of the bill.
Michael Curry, cofounder of the Health Equity Compact, a group of more than 80 leaders of color that filed the legislation, said this bill would save the state from the financial costs of an unjust system.
A report released in June, commissioned by the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation in collaboration with the Compact, found that racial and ethnic disparities cost the state about $5.9 billion each year in avoidable health care spending and lost labor productivity — a total that could nearly double by 2050.
“We are all paying for this financial cost right now, whether we know this or not,” said Curry, who is also president of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers. He testified alongside Assaad Sayah, president and chief executive of Cambridge Health Alliance.
Throughout the pandemic, Curry and Sayah held public meetings and hearings with residents as co-chairs of a statewide task force and made several of the policy recommendations included in the bill.
“Returning to prepandemic normal is not an option when normal is what created the conditions that caused these disparities,” Sayah said.
Advocates praised the bill’s provision to expand MassHealth benefits, a move they said was key to reducing the social and financial burden of health disparities in the state.
“Massachusetts is a leader in many ways in healthcare but we are not leading on this,” said Amy Rosenthal, the executive director of Boston advocacy group Health Care For All, which has worked for years to advocate for the expansion of MassHealth but was not directly involved in the current legislation. At the hearing, she said that several states, including Vermont, Rhode Island, and Maine, already have laws expanding Medicaid coverage for children and young people who would qualify if not for their immigration status.
In addition to creating a Cabinet-level secretary of equity position, the bill would also require state agencies to track and publicly report data related to health disparities. This would increase collaboration across institutions and departments and reduce bureaucratic hurdles to narrowing gaps, said Boston’s Public Health Commissioner Dr. Bisola Ojikutu.
In May, the Boston Public Health Commission released a series of five reports, which found disturbing racial gaps in life expectancy and chronic conditions, such as diabetes, asthma, and cancer, among Boston neighborhoods. Ojikutu said this task would not have been such a heavy lift for her department had there been more mechanisms in place for agencies to collaborate on equity-related work.
Creating solutions is impossible until we know what the root causes are, said Dr. Thea James, Boston Medical Center’s vice president of mission, who noted how important it was for more institutions to collect health equity data. She pointed to BMC’s success in narrowing postpartum readmission rates by 20 percent over the past year — the result, she said, of prioritizing data collection and patient feedback.
Earlier in the morning, members of the compact organized a rally in front of the State House to galvanize support for the bill. Demonstrators waved signs that read, “Health Equity Now!” and “I am a Health Equity Voter” and chatted with pedestrians walking by to raise awareness of the bill.
Mitikei Chengerei, a certified community health worker at GreenRoots, a community-led environmental justice organization that serves Chelsea and East Boston, came to show her support for the legislation, which she hopes will help many low-income and immigrant families overcome financial and cultural barriers to adequate health services.
“Everyone deserves the right to a provider and to equal treatment,” she said. “Hopefully, this is a start.”
The bill was heard with a host of others focused on increasing equitable access to health, including legislation to prevent discrimination against people with disabilities and expand Medicaid coverage for doula services. Reducing health disparities and increasing access and accountability is a priority for the committee, said its chair, state Senator Cindy Friedman.
“There’s a lot of energy about this,” she said. “The next steps are to engage in deeper conversation about pieces of the bill to ensure whatever we’re doing has a direct effect on the people we’re doing this for.”
The committee will continue to accept written testimony via email with no deadline until it reaches a decision.