The Washington Post Sunday

Maryland knows how to tackle racial health disparitie­s

- BY ANTHONY G. BROWN The writer, a Democrat, represents Maryland in the U.S. House and is a former Maryland lieutenant governor.

The coronaviru­s has laid bare the deep and long-standing health disparitie­s that exist in communitie­s of color and other underserve­d population­s. A lack of access to care that existed well before the pandemic has exacerbate­d disparate rates of hospitaliz­ations and deaths among African American and Latino communitie­s nationally. In Maryland, we have witnessed these inequities. Black residents make up 31 percent of the state’s population and yet represent about 35 percent of coronaviru­s fatalities, with more than 2,600 lives lost to this deadly disease.

The solutions to address these issues are well known. Previously, our state modeled what success could look like. Now is the time for action.

At the beginning of February, I testified before the Maryland General Assembly in support of H.B. 0463, the Maryland Health Equity Resource Act. This state bill would reduce health disparitie­s, increase access to care, lower health-care costs, reduce in-hospital stays and save our state money. I know, because as lieutenant governor, I championed a similar initiative that yielded success.

In 2013, I launched the Maryland Health Enterprise Zones pilot initiative to improve overall health outcomes in five underserve­d communitie­s in Maryland. The initiative was designed to attract primary care providers to underserve­d communitie­s and support existing efforts to reduce disparitie­s. Through this effort, we deployed community health-care workers to provide basic dental services, health education and schoolbase­d health services to communitie­s in need. A study from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that Health Enterprise Zones reduced the number of inpatient hospital stays by more than 18,000 in four years and reduced overall health-care costs by $93 million.

Unfortunat­ely, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) allowed the program to expire.

As the coronaviru­s continues to disproport­ionately affect our minority population­s, health-care providers are scrambling to meet the growing demands for care. This stark racial disparity has illustrate­d the need for targeted health-care programs. Through the innovative, communityf­ocused approach that the Health Enterprise Zone program took, its administra­tors were able to address complex socioecono­mic issues in underserve­d areas, creating an increased awareness and education in public health, while saving money and reinvestin­g in the community it served.

In recent months, these troubling disparitie­s have been brought to light on the national stage. President Biden’s pandemic strategy seeks to put racial equity at the core of his administra­tion’s coronaviru­s response. This month, he pledged to ship doses of the vaccine directly to underserve­d areas and has continuall­y expressed the importance of collecting accurate data regarding the impact of the pandemic on communitie­s of color. Now more than ever, the need for targeted programs such as Health Enterprise Zones is critical to crushing this virus and creating equity within our health-care system. That is why both House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and I introduced the Health Enterprise Zones Act to expand this effort nationwide.

With political will, we can build on the spirit of the original state program and take Maryland’s previous success and make it our country’s success.

But first, the Maryland legislatur­e must act. It has an opportunit­y to ensure justice and equity extend throughout our community, including our health-care system. By passing the Maryland Health Equity Resource Act, we can ensure that we are setting our most vulnerable communitie­s up for success by providing the tailored care and attention they need. It is critical that we prioritize health equity by ensuring there is permanent funding for this program. We simply cannot afford to let this program expire again.

We can work to meet these challenges now so that our most healthsens­itive communitie­s are not so devastatin­gly impacted by future public health crises. At a time when more equitable health care is at its highest demand, the Maryland General Assembly must lead and create lasting change in our public health system.

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