State awaits overdue health equity recommendations

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BOSTON (State House News Service)–Health care disparities illuminated by the COVID-19 pandemic spurred lawmakers last year to launch a task force to come up with a series of recommendations to address inequities, but getting the work to completion has proven a big challenge.

The Health Equity Task Force convened a series of meetings last year and this year but has missed its deadline for a final report despite two extensions. A June 2020 law creating the task force gave it an Aug. 1 deadline. Lawmakers then extended the deadline to Sept. 15, 2020, and then to Feb. 28, 2021. The task force had a meeting scheduled for March 31 to consider final recommendations but it was canceled without elaboration.

While aides to task force chairs did not respond to News Service inquiries about the panel’s work and plans, a source familiar with the group’s work told the News Service that the meeting was canceled because the final recommendations under consideration were denser and more thorough than anticipated and some members of the task force wanted more time to review them. The source said another meeting of the task force could be scheduled soon.

The task force co-chairs are Cambridge Health Alliance CEO Dr. Assaad Sayah, who was appointed by former House Speaker Robert DeLeo, and Michael Curry of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers, an appointee of Senate President Karen Spilka. Spilka last June said the group’s recommendations would “help provide a road map for improving health care services across the Commonwealth, particularly in our communities of color who were disproportionally impacted by the coronavirus.”

The panel compiled an interim report in October that identified as critical priorities bolstering data collection and reporting, developing an equitable vaccine distribution plan, and creating a dedicated reserve account to fund initiatives that mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and address the pandemic’s disproportionate impacts on “racially and ethnically diverse populations and other vulnerable populations.” Lawmakers charged the task force with returning recommendations to the Legislature “that address health disparities for underserved or underrepresented populations based on culture, race, ethnicity, language, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation, geographic location, including, but not limited to, gateway cities with hospitals dedicated to caring for patients who test positive for COVID-19, and age in the commonwealth during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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