Panelists: Supports needed to ensure black wellness

BOSTON, Mass. (SHNS)–As people look for ways to rebuild after two years of the COVID-19 pandemic’s upheaval, the head of a Roxbury community health center said Monday that the Black community in particular needs “better scaffolding” and support.

Dr. Charles Anderson, president and CEO of The Dimock Center, said he has seen an increased demand and need for mental health services, and that patients, especially younger ones, are looking for care that is integrated so they can address their needs while visiting a provider rather than being referred somewhere else or told to come back for a follow-up appointment. “I’m seeing people coming in saying, ‘Look, I’ve gone through a tremendous amount of trauma over the last couple years that have just exacerbated what I was dealing with prior to this pandemic, and I need better scaffolding’,” he said. “I need better supports. I need better coordination of care. I need a system that’s going to look at me and understand where I am at this point in time and make adjustments to get to what true equity really is supposed to be about.”

Speaking during a virtual panel discussion on Black health and wellness hosted by Attorney General Maura Healey’s office, Anderson said he worries “that the type of scaffolding that’s available for our community is very different than the type of scaffolding that other communities have as we’re rebuilding.”

Pandemic impacts have sparked a renewed focus on preexisting health disparities and gaps in access to care. A health equity task force convened by the Legislature, in a report published last summer, called for the state to “make equity the ‘North Star’ for guiding every decision about the response to and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The panel described its report as a “blueprint” for action and used it to highlight several specific policies that go beyond COVID-19 response, including investing in community health center “rate adequacy,” extending MassHealth’s maternal postpartum care coverage, requiring universally free school meals, providing legal counsel in eviction and foreclosure proceedings, making driver’s licenses available to all residents regardless of immigration status, and adopting standard and consistent demographic data collection practices to measure progress toward equity.

The Senate plans to take up a postpartum care bill (S 2731) in its Thursday session, and the House voted 120-36 on Feb. 16 to pass a bill that would create a pathway for some immigrants without legal status to obtain standard Massachusetts driver’s licenses.

Action could also be possible this session on legislation dealing with universal school meals. The Education Committee pushed its deadline to decide on school meals bills (H 714, S 314) from early February until June 1, and Senate Chairman Jason Lewis has said that extra time will let lawmakers see if the U.S. Department of Agriculture extends a waiver that has allowed schools to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students during the pandemic.

Introducing Monday’s event, Healey said that Black residents are “bearing the brunt” of the behavioral health crisis associated with the pandemic, that Black women in Massachusetts are nearly two times as likely to die of pregnancy-related causes than white women, and Black men in the state died of overdoses in 2020 at a rate nearly 70 percent higher than the previous year. “I think we can all agree that the imperative for a racial justice perspective, a racial justice lens on health has never been more clear,” she said.

Tonja Santos, assistant director of Baystate Medical Center’s division of midwifery and community health, said Baystate does implicit-bias training for its labor and delivery staff and is “really taking the view that in order to make our health care institution safe, we need to own and address our own implicit bias and the impact it has on the care that we provide.” “We know that health care doesn’t exist in a vacuum, that we are a microcosm of the society that we are a part of,” Santos said. “We have the same systemic and structural injustices in health care that exists outside of health care.”

Boston Children’s Hospital last year created an institute dedicated to pediatric health equity and inclusion, said Dr. Valerie Ward, the hospital’s chief equity and inclusion officer. “It means that we’re going to be intentional in prioritizing health inequities that children experience, and what they experience is multifactorial,” Ward said. “It’s at the level of the child. It’s also the level of the parent. It’s at the level of economic disparity and educational attainment, differential educational attainment.”

She said health systems can use their resources to provide jobs in a community and also can show children and youth the different types of jobs available to them so there can eventually be “more health care providers that look like the communities we serve.”

Pointing to top positions at Children’s and insurance company Point32Health as examples, Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers President and CEO Michael Curry said there are now “more Black and Latinx leaders in health care in Massachusetts than we’ve ever seen.”

Responding to a question on what allies can do to push for greater equity in health care, Curry said, “Be impatient with the inequity that exists in health care, speak up wherever you are, whether you’re a policymaker or a you’re health care institution, and say ‘Well, what are we doing to make sure that we resource those communities in an equitable way.”