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  • Washington Highlights

    AAMC Members, Senate Aging Committee Discuss Health Disparities During COVID-19


    Matthew Shick, Sr. Director, Gov't Relations & Regulatory Affairs
    Brett Roude, Legislative Analyst

    The Senate Special Committee on Aging held a hearing on July 21 to examine the racial health disparities that have impacted senior citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Witnesses from the academic medicine community included Dominic Mack, MD, MBA, professor of family medicine at Morehouse School of Medicine; Mercedes Carnethon, PhD, professor of epidemiology and vice chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine; and Eugene Woods, MBA, president and chief executive officer of Atrium Health.

    Throughout the hearing, witnesses discussed how the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted   significant systemic issues impacting racial and ethnic minority seniors, including social determinants of health — such as housing and food insecurity — and the struggles of nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

    Committee Chair Susan Collins (R-Maine) opened the hearing by addressing the challenges COVID-19 has highlighted for racial and ethnic minority communities.

    “Part of the solution may be found through community partnerships and greater health care workforce diversity. Blacks make up 13% of the U.S. population but only 5% of physicians in the United States, according to a recent report from the Association of American Medical Colleges,” Sen. Collins said.

    Ranking Member Bob Casey (D-Pa.) echoed the concerns raised by Sen. Collins, adding, “Older Americans of color, as the Chairman outlined, have spent a lifetime enduring the structural inequities of racism that have plagued our country since its inception.”

    Woods addressed the need for comprehensive testing and a robust supply chain in making sure all patients, especially older Americans, are tested for COVID-19.

    “With our in-house laboratory, we have the capacity to process more than 4,000 tests per day. International shortages of reagents and specialized plastics needed for collection have limited us to well below capacity on a daily basis. We have explored all avenues to secure additional supplies, however, manufacturers simply do not have anything more to give,” he said.

    Dr. Carnethon highlighted the need for Congress to expand the digital infrastructure and training available to older adults to support videoconferencing for telemedicine.

    “The CARES Act provided provisions to expand coverage and offer grants to support broader use of telehealth services, including Medicare. While this can be carried out by telephone, it can be even better via videoconferencing,” she said.

    When discussing solutions to help mitigate health disparities, Dr. Mack addressed the importance of diversifying our health workforce to make sure our providers deliver culturally competent care.

    He urged senators to increase funding for existing Title VII health professions training programs at the Health Resources and Services Administration that are targeted at increasing diversity in the health care workforce, including the Minority Centers of Excellence Program, the Health Careers Opportunity Program, the Scholarships for Disadvantaged Students Program, the Minority Faculty Loan Repayment Program, and the Geriatric Training Program.