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A new bill aims to declare racism a statewide public health crisis in Connecticut. Here’s what that means.
Hartford Courant - 3/25/2021
In the wake of the killing of George Floyd in 2020, nearly two dozen cities and towns across Connecticut passed resolutions declaring racism a public health crisis. Now, a new bill in the General Assembly aims to do so on a statewide level—in addition to establishing a commission on racial equity in public health.
State Rep. Brandon McGee, D-Hartford, said the bill would create a “strategic plan to eliminate health disparities” in policies involving housing, the criminal justice system, access to food, environmental hazards and other issues.
“Until we as a state have significantly addressed this matter and pulled together policy points that will address inequities in key sectors that affect health, I’m not certain we’ve done our job,” McGee said during a virtual press conference about the bill Thursday.
The bill will be discussed at a public hearing before the Appropriations Committee on Friday.
Here’s what you need to know:
What does it mean to declare racism a public health crisis?
Declaring racism a public health crisis is an acknowledgement of the ways in which systemic racism can result in adverse health outcomes for people of color. For instance, racial bias in healthcare has been linked to the fact that Black infants are more than twice as likely to die as white infants — and Black mothers are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes as their white counterparts.
As a result of America’s long history of discriminatory practices, people of color are also more likely to live in areas with poor housing stock, diminished access to high-quality food and under-performing school districts.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also laid bare — and exacerbated — many of these disparities, as many communities of color continue to experience greater rates of mortality, and lower rates of vaccination, than their white counterparts.
What does the state bill (HB #6662) aim to do?
The bill seeks to declare racism a public health crisis in Connecticut — and lays out a series of specific steps and quantifiable goals to address the issue.
Those steps together comprise a broad framework for driving change in a state where longstanding disparities and institutional racism have led to inequities in education, housing, healthcare and other areas. The bill calls for measured reductions in a sweeping list of those disparities, as well as for the establishment of a statewide commission.
The goals include at least a 70% reduction in disparities in areas including kindergarten readiness, reading proficiency, school-based discipline, high school graduation and college retention rates, health insurance coverage rates, pregnancy and infant health outcomes, deaths related to exposure to environmental pollutants, involvement with the justice system, and rates of poverty, housing, and lead poisoning.
The legislation “sets a path for making legislative and policy changes necessary to advance health equity with concrete metrics for change,” said Dr. Tekisha Dwan Everette, the executive director of Health Equity Solutions.
How would a commission work?
The bill would also establish a Commission on Racial Equity in Public Health that would document the extent of the problem and make recommendations for change. It would include the commissioners of a range of state departments, including Public Health, Children and Families and Social Services, as well as a handful of community representatives appointed by the governor.
The commission would focus primarily on exploring how the state’s laws and regulations impact public health, racial disparities in the state’s criminal justice system, access to fresh food, physical activity, public safety, and pollution-free areas, as well as disparities in health outcomes, housing and state hiring and contracting.
“Everybody is impacted by our inaction of making changes to the systems that are resulting in the outcomes we see in too many of our communities,” State House Majority Leader Jason Rojas said Thursday, pointing to disparate levels of wealth, health and education between communities in the state.
“Talking about race is difficult for all of us to engage in,” he added. “We haven’t been able to do it in a successful way. We have to find a way to be uncomfortable so that we can adequately address these issues.”
The bill would not only issue an “overdue” declaration of racism as a public health crisis, Middletown Mayor Ben Florsheim said, but would also create a statewide “framework for us to continue this work, to stick to this work over the long term and start to get the outcomes we need to live up to the promise we’ve all made.”
What is happening at the town level?
In the past year, twenty cities and towns in Connecticut, as well as the The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, have declared racism a public health crisis, according to Everette, of Health Equity Solutions.
Bloomfield Mayor Suzette DeBeatham-Brown said Thursday that her town has long declared racism a public health crisis and urged Connecticut residents to find the courage to address racial issues head-on.
“We’re at a place in our history and our time that we can no longer shut our eyes, we can no longer close the blinds. We have to face it,” she said.
DeBeatham-Brown said she hoped the bill would bring additional funding for Bloomfield and other towns to bolster education, school health centers and health districts.
Middletown passed a resolution last summer declaring racism a public health crisis, in addition to creating a permanent anti-racism task force, Florsheim said. Resulting projects in the town this past year have included creating an outreach team to help underserved communities get access to COVID-19 testing.
Does Gov. Lamont support this effort?
Yes. On Thursday, Paul Mounds, Lamont’s chief of staff voiced the governor’s support for legislation designating racism a public health crisis — and for making structural changes in Connecticut.
Mounds pointed out that residents of Connecticut’s cities tend to have higher rates of asthma than their suburban counterparts—a result of the construction of highways that cut through cities and increased rates of pollution. Hartford ranks in the top 20 in the nation in terms of per capita individuals with asthma, he noted.
“Transportation emissions is the highest polluter in the state of Connecticut. When you take a look and see where our highways are located, and where the.. high capacity trucks or high emitting cars are, it’s in our cities,” Mounds said.
How would this bill affect the way the state operates?
State Department of Children and Families Commissioner Vannessa Dorante said Thursday that her department has already begun to apply a racial lens to its day-to-day work, tracking specific metrics in order to quantify racial disparities.
“Are all who we serve better off as a result of our interventions, or just some?” she said. “...It can be daunting and frustrating when the trendlines don’t move. We thought that if you call out racism...then things will change.”
But, she said, “You have to have institutional and structural metrics that you measure and strategies to be able to call it out where you see it.”
Eliza Fawcett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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