The Washington Post Sunday
Maryland knows how to tackle racial health disparities
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.