Latino And Black Caucus Look For Legislative Solution To Address Health Care Disparities

Rep. Bruce Morris, Chairman of the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus Photo Credit: Connecticut House Democrats
Bill Sarno/
The movement to eliminate health care disparities in Connecticut hit a speed bump during the last legislative seession when funding for the Commission on Health Equity (CHE) was sacrificed due to the state budget crunch.
However, state Rep. Hilda Santiago (D-24) and other members of the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus want to work to revive the agency during the 2017 session. The Meriden Democrat is vice-chairperson of the caucus and also was appointed to serve with the health care commission.
“We never had the opportunity to get this off the ground,” Santiago noted. “We were involved in some health fairs and sent out information, but never were able to hire a director,” the Democratic legislator said.
Health care disparities is a major concern for Latinos who exhibit a higher rate, for example, of HIV incidence, diabetes-related deaths and obesity than non-Hispanic whites.
CHE was created in 2008 with the stated mission of eliminating disparities in health status based on race, ethnicity, gender and linguistic ability. The committee had lobbied on behalf of culturally and linguistically appropriate health care and had several annual reports up to 2013 about the health care status of various groups facing disparities. 
The bill (SB32) to allow the commission to appoint an executive director and place the commission within the Insurance Department for administrative purposes failed to get through the legislature last year. In addition, a $146,967 allocation originally in the state budget 2016-17 was slashed by the governor.
While the Black and Puerto Rican Legislative Caucus does not set its agenda for 2017 until after the Nov. 8th election – when the heavily Democratic group could pick up a couple seats – its chairman, Rep. Bruce Morris from Norwalk, said  that the health care disparities faced by minority populations could have a long-term impact on the state’s economy and issues such as the cost of health insurance.
For now, Morris, who is unopposed for his sixth term, is looking forward to guidance and a “national tool kit” for identifying and acting on possible solutions  discussed at the National Health Disparities Elimination Summit, which was held Oct. 29 at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington.
The Black & Puerto Rican Caucus, the Connecticut Institute for Clinical and Translational Science (CICATS) at UConn and the W. Montague Cobb/MMA Health Institute sponsored the gathering of national and state health care professionals. In addition to its work in addressing health care disparities, CICATS’s mission primarily is to expedite the process of bringing research-generated in health care from the lab to the patients, or “from bench to bedside.”
Morris said the primary purpose of the summit, which is entitled “Living in America Today: Transforming Environments to Eliminate Health Disparities,” is to spur discussion of the underlying causes of the health care disparities affecting minority communities.
The conclave’s theme was  “where you live matters,” according to CICATS. This includes environment issues such as the Flint, Mich. water crisis and the higher incidence of environmentally impacted diseases such as asthma and societal structure issues such as gun violence, which are “creating or exacerbating health disparities” for minority and low-income communities. The speakers reported on the current state of Latino and African-American health in America.
Scheduled presenters from Connecticut. included Morris, chairman of the caucus and deputy House speaker; Frances G. Padilla, president of the Universal Health Care Foundation, who has been active in Latino organizations, and Dr. Gary Rhule, director of the City of Hartford Health and Human Services Department.
Enrollment in the conference was open to everyone, ,with those signed up including people involved in community medicine, Hartford health officials, UConn students and researchers, said Eliza Folsom of CICAT, who helped organize the summit. “The goal was for everyone who attended to leave with a tool kit of ideas and actions to bring back to the community to help eliminate health care disparities, Folsom said.
The greater incidence of various health problems and getting better access to health services for Latinos has been a long-standing concern for groups such as the Hispanic Federation. Ingrid Alvarez, the Federation’s Connecticut director, has been working with the Connecticut Health Foundation for the past 24 months to develop and utilize strategies, which she said, would “bring the voices of consumers of color to key health equity decision-making tables and organizations.”
 Among the most recent evaluations of what is happening to improve health care for minorities is the October 2016 report issued by the Texas Health Institute which focuses on Connecticut’s pilot use of the Marketplace Health Equity Assessment Tool (M-HEAT) to measure progress toward advancing health equity in its marketplace by Access Health CT. AHCT is the state’s Affordable Care Act enterprise.
THI integrated public and self-reported data from Connecticut’s health insurance marketplace and a survey of stakeholders, primarily community organizations including 89 percent that targeted Hispanics, and found disparities in the use of AHCT with most non-whites having not used health insurance and do not have a provider, as well as less use of feedback from the non-white stakeholders.
The need for address the inequities in health care as well as lifestyle issues is underscored in the Hispanic Federation’s “Latino Connecticut: A Call to Action Public Policy Blueprint.
These disparities include that 29 percent of the people in Connecticut living with HIV disease in 2012, which is twice that group’s proportion of the overall population. There also was a greater incidence of asthma among Hispanic than non-Hispanic whites (2010), of lead poisoning among Hispanic children under 6 years of age (2012), of childhood and adult obesity (2011) and infant mortality (2010), and for death due to diabetes and diabetes-related causes.
A disparity factor that CICAT through its Young Innovative Investigator Program is addressing is helping underrepresented minorities pursue careers as scientists and scholars in biological and biomedical science “with the intent of developing the next generation of innovative biomedical scientists and increasing diversity among the pool of academic scientists.”
YIIP, through the UConn School of Medicine, helps prepare minority college graduates to become competitive candidates for medical or graduate school. This may include, Folsom said, increasing lab or research experiences and improving test scores.