Let’s put an end to any toleration of racial/ethnic health disparities

April is National Minority Health month, and as the high from the passage of national health care reform begins to wind down and we are able to more clearly process this historic accomplishment, I want to take this time to reflect on our past accomplishments and establish a clear agenda for finishing the task of making quality healthcare affordable and accessible to all.

 At the end of March, I attended the National Black Caucus of State Legislators’ (NBCSL) conference on “Health Disparities in Communities of Color,” where I spoke on a panel on the importance of crafting effective legislation to reduce the health disparities gap.

 While we were brainstorming and debating the best approach we could take at the state level to tackle this systemic problem, our national congressmen and congresswomen were passing America’s historic health care reform legislation.

 I am honored to have been able to witness first-hand the passing of this monumental legislation and to have borne witness to the strength and fortitude of our legislators, standing      by their side as we endured being insulted, spat on, and demeaned in order to do what is right for our country.

 I am pleased to welcome our congressmen and congresswomen into the ranks of Health Care Warriors; those tireless advocates, healthcare workers, legislators, and citizens who recognize that access to affordable, quality health care is a fundamental human right.

 Now that the formalities are done with, let’s get down to business.
 The passage of this health care legislation is just the first step in a long and arduous journey. As we enter the next stage, I know Massachusetts can serve as a vital resource to the rest of the nation and want to share some thoughts on how we can use our expertise to inform the policy debate.

 In 2006, we became leaders in the health care reform movement by enacting transformative healthcare legislation that has resulted in 97.4 percent of the Commonwealth having insurance. Despite its enactment however, many minority and low-income individuals still find themselves unable to access quality health care. This lack of access has resulted in some glaring racial/ethnic health disparities.

 Black infant mortality rates in the United States rival those of some developing countries; women of color, especially African-American and Hispanic, are the fastest growing HIV/AIDs demographic in the country; Asian-American women have a higher rate of cervical cancer than any other population; Hispanic children visit emergency rooms due to asthma-related complications more frequently than White or Asian-Americans.

 And the list does go on…

 But rather than sit back and admit defeat, the Commonwealth has stayed true to its pioneering history and produced a first-in-the-nation results-oriented model that has effectively utilized community-level initiatives to prioritize outreach, education, and quality care for minority and low-income communities.  

 The Massachusetts Association of Community Health Workers (MACHW) is a statewide network of community health workers (CHWs) who have been essential in combating racial/ethnic health disparities. Since its inception 10 years ago, this organization has grown to over 3,000 members here in the Commonwealth, and has spread into a national movement.

 Thanks to the tireless work of these CHWs, marginalized communities in Massachusetts and across the U.S. have begun to see improvements in their individual health and a closing of the racial/ethnic health disparities gap.

 These culturally competent health care warriors have not only helped increase health insurance enrollment by reaching out to marginalized communities, but they have also been effective in helping patients self-manage their chronic diseases; been extremely effective in ensuring the use of preventative care; and serve as a vital communication link between doctors and patients.

 More impressive still, is that these CHWs manage to thrive with limited political and financial support. I and a dedicated few of my colleagues here at the State House have championed the cause of CHWs, but we need more support.

There are currently two key pieces of legislation pending in the Massachusetts legislature:  H4130, which would establish a board of Certification for CHWs; and S810, which makes the Office of Health Equity within the Executive Office of Health and Human Services a permanent institution.

Establishing a board for CHWs and making the Office of Health Equity permanent would not only demonstrate the Commonwealth’s faith in and commitment to eliminating racial/ethnic health disparities, but would also demonstrate to the nation the value of community-driven health initiatives. It is imperative that these pieces of legislation be enacted.

CHWs have proven their value here in the Commonwealth and across the nation. We should continue our proud legacy of being leaders for this nation by passing H4130 and S810 and incorporate these important lessons into our national health care reform agenda. We can no longer tolerate racial/ethnic health disparities in this Commonwealth or our great nation.

Rep. Gloria L. Fox, D-Boston, represents the Seventh Suffolk district.