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Massachusetts health care — wonky, with a healthy dose of reality

Health Equity for All

Health Equity for All

June 12, 2009

On Tuesday, the legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Health held a hearing for nearly 20 bills relating to access to care and health disparities. In front of a buzzing Gardner Auditorium, over one hundred health care advocates, community members, physicians, and legislators filled the hearing room. Among this crowd were members of the Disparities Action Network (DAN) who stood out wearing “Invest in Equity” stickers as they offered testimony in support of S. 810, An Act to Eliminate Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities in the Commonwealth and S. 811, An Act to Establish Community Based Grant Programs to Eliminate Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities in the Commonwealth. Watch some highlights:

The DAN’s first panel included Elmer Freeman, Executive Director of CCHERS; Samantha Morton, Executive Director of the Medical-Legal Partnership at Boston Medical Center and Dr. Alice Coombs, president-elect of the Massachusetts Medical Society. All three testified in support of S. 810 and explained the need for an Office of Health Equity. They noted that an Office of Health Equity need not be a large bureaucracy – that since its function would be largely coordination and collaboration with other groups, it could work well with a small, inexpensive (the key word these days) staff.

Samantha Morton described her organization’s work to reduce disparities by tackling the external barriers to care including housing, transportation and education. She shared a compelling story of a mother who is forced to carry her 13-year old child and her child’s wheelchair up and down stairs to their apartment because she has not been granted an apartment on a lower floor by her housing complex. Dr. Coombs drew an analogy to explain the current state of health disparities, saying that “access is like a $40,000 check with no bank to cash it in.” The Office of Health Equity would open up that bank for minorities.

Another panel, featuring Dr. Nancy Norman, Medical Director for the Boston Public Health Commission; Dr. Roderick King, a pediatrician and Harvard Medical School professor; Dr. Frank Robinson, Executive of Partners for a Healthier Community; and Adrian Ford, Executive Director of Three Pyramids, a Fitchburg community development agency. The four panelists spoke regarding the importance of community based grant programs in eliminating racial and ethnic health disparities by spreading knowledge of health programs that many were otherwise unaware of. Dr. King told the story of the community health center movement and their important role in health reform, going back as far as the 1960s. Mr. Ford spoke of the vital role of inter-ethnic relations in closing racial and ethnic disparities.

HCFA’s Executive Director, Amy Whitcomb Slemmer, also testified in support of S. 810 and S. 811 and in support of S. 800 (An Act Establishing a Commission to Reduce Unnecessary Wait Time for Children with Special Health Care Needs To Receive Needed Medical Equipment Such as Wheelchairs and Lifts, sponsored by Sen. Buoniconti) and S. 819 (An Act Relative to Accessible Medical Equipment, sponsored by Sen. Jehlen). Of the latter bills she said, “For persons living with certain physical disabilities, accessing even the most routine medical procedures is difficult, if not impossible when health care facilities do not have fully accessible medical equipment to serve them… as we must ensure that everyone is able to access basic health care services, regardless of disability status.”

Secretary Bigby provided the Committee with an update on her agency’s work to eliminate health disparities. Jarrett Barrios, Executive Director of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation also presented startling statistics on the barriers to care for the state’s immigrants and ethnic populations. Several legislators also testified in support of these bills including Rep. Fox and Rep. Rushing (both of Boston). The Joint Committee, chaired by Senator Susan Fargo and Representative Jeffrey Sanchez, seemed to respond well to both bills’ testimony and understand that more must be done to make health equity a reality in the Commonwealth.
-Josh Rosmarin and Jessica Hamilton