Connecticut panel hosts inaugural meeting to address racism in public health
Bill SB 1 established a 28-member commission which will make recommendations to decrease the effect of racism on public health. The commission held its first meeting on Nov. 17.
Zoe Berg, Photography Editor
The 28-member Commission on Racial Equity in Public Health met for the first time Wednesday, following its establishment by Governor Ned Lamont in a summer bill that declared racism a public health crisis in Connecticut.
SB 1, signed by Lamont on June 14, established a Commission on Racial Equity in Public Health to document and make recommendations to mitigate the effects of racism on public health. The commission is required to submit a report about public health, appropriations and the budgets of state agencies every six months beginning on Jan. 1, 2022.
“We’re waiting to hear what [the commission’s] plans are and the things that they’re going to start,” said Rep. Anthony Nolan, a Democrat from New London and supporter of SB 1. “So that we can make whatever changes that we needed in the not so distant future, to make sure that the disparities are being dealt with until some of the social detriments of health and other things are corrected.”
Mark Abraham, the executive director of DataHaven and one of the 28 members of the commission, expressed his excitement to attend the first meeting.
“It was exciting to see leaders from across so many different sectors, including community-based organizations, discuss the purpose of this legislation,” Abraham wrote in an email to the News.
The commission recognized that the work would be difficult, given that institutional structures that led to the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on communities of color — such as those in health care, housing and criminal justice — have been built up over many decades, and so will require significant effort to change.
However, Abraham said that Connecticut has been able to change policies in the past in important ways that not all states have been able to do, such as expanding health insurance coverage to hundreds of thousands of residents. He believes that there is “a reason for optimism that some of these problems can be addressed in ways that improve quality of life for all of the residents of our state.”
How will the bill address public health crises resulting from racism
According to state Sen. Saud Anwar, the proposer of SB 1, racism has been recognized as a cause of disease by public health experts.
A report from DataHaven supports Anwar’s claim that health disparities are rooted in racism. The report shows that maternal mortality is highest among Black women, and babies born to Black mothers are four times more likely to die before their first birthday, compared to babies born to white mothers. Additionally, Black and brown communities are two times more likely to experience food insecurity, two times more likely to die from diabetes and two times more likely to go without medical care compared to white people.
Abraham also wrote that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on Black and Latino adults in the area, in which Black residents of Connecticut have been more than twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than white residents, and Latinos almost twice as likely.
“There are clear signs and findings that confirm that there is a difference in the severity of illness from instant incidents, and overall prevalence, depending on the community.” Anwar said.
Anwar added that when he proposed the bill in January of this year, he had two major visions for it. First, he hoped the bill would raise awareness and incite acknowledgement that racism can lead to a public health crisis. Anwar also envisioned the creation of a team of experts who would make recommendations, based on the many different components that cause disease, to change policies and start to undo existing problems.
The established commission brought together people from diverse racial backgrounds, who have wide-ranging expertise in education, housing, social service, public health and legislatures, among other fields.
According to the bill, the commission will develop and periodically update a comprehensive strategic plan to eliminate health disparities and inequities across various sectors: air and water quality, natural resources and agricultural land, affordable housing, infrastructure systems, public health, access to quality health care, social services, sustainable communities and the impact of climate change.
The bill also requires the development and implementation of a recruitment and retention program for health care workers in the state who are people of color, and it establishes a gun violence intervention and prevention advisory committee to identify strategies for reducing gun violence.
Before Jan. 1, 2022, the commission needs to submit an initial comprehensive strategic plan that determines the percentages of disparity in the state based on race in education, health care utilization and outcome, criminal justice and economics. Before Jan. 1, 2023, the commission needs to submit an additional report including the best practices and recommendations on any legislation to address issues in the aforementioned areas.
The debate around SB 1
Contentious debate has followed this bill since it was proposed in January. A public hearing was held on March 17, and the bill was passed by the State House on June 1, with 114 votes in support and 33 votes in opposition. On June 14, Lamont signed the bill, but without the usual press release.
Lamont did not respond to repeated emails and phone calls.
The bill received overwhelming support from Democrats and local organizations. Only one Democrat, Rep. Kerry Wood of Rocky Hill, voted in opposition.
“Addressing disparity created by racism is an important first step in tackling racism as a public health crisis,” Nolan said at the public hearing. “It means taking actual actions to dismantle the endorsed governmental policies and unconscious biases in nearly every area of life, including banking, education, [and] housing.”
Connecticut’s Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, Connecticut Department of Public Health, Connecticut Office of Health Strategy, Yale New Haven Health, New Haven Legal Assistance Association and many other organizations all testified in support of Bill 1, though some with amendments.
However among Republicans, 22 people voted in support of the bill and 32 voted in opposition. Some Republicans challenged the premise that racism exists in Connecticut.
“SB 1 is another attempt to create a law for a problem that doesn’t exist, divide people and increase overreach and growth of our state government.” Anne Manusky, president of the Connecticut Republican Assembly, wrote in her public hearing testimony.
Manusky could not be reached for comment by the time of publication.
In response to Republican opposition, Anwar said that the biggest challenge in the approval of the bill was people’s denial or lack of knowledge of racism as a public health crisis.
“The difficult part was that many of the people did not believe this was true,” said Anwar. “So we were trying to help educate them, inform them and share some of the data and help them learn about those [issues].”
Experts weigh in
Ijeoma Opara, assistant professor of public health at the Yale School of Public Health, stood in support of SB 1.
Similar to Anwar and Nolan, Opara also stressed the importance of recognizing racism as a structural issue that leads to a public health crisis. Opara believes that if society is not willing to be aware of embedded biases and their consequences, nothing will be done to address the systemic racism, and the public health crisis will continue to exist.
“Having a really comprehensive bill like this would be so beneficial,” Opara said. “We still need more things, but I think this is moving in the right direction. We need to create policies that directly focus on Black people and not be scared to focus on this group.”
According to Abraham, SB 1 will support efforts to advance racial equity, both through the powers given to the new commission as well as regulations that require changes in areas, including the collection of data by race and ethnicity.
Lamont assumed office in 2019, and his current term ends on Jan. 4, 2023.