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  • Washington Highlights

    House Committee Discusses COVID-19 Health Disparities


    Brett Roude, Legislative Analyst

    The House Ways and Means Committee held its first-ever virtual hearing on May 27 examining the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color.

    Witnesses representing the academic medicine community included Alicia Fernandez, MD, professor of medicine at University of California, San Francisco; James Hildreth, MD, PhD, president and chief executive officer of Meharry Medical College; and Thomas Sequist, MD, MPH, chief patient experience and equity officer at Mass General Brigham.

    Throughout the hearing, witnesses discussed how the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the larger systemic issues impacting racial and ethnic minority health, such as affordable housing, economic security, multigenerational living, and access to quality health care.

    To better quantify and analyze these factors, the AAMC in an April 10 statement called for “the development of a national, standardized data collection system that accurately captures race and ethnicity data, as well as information on the social and environmental conditions in which people live, work, and play (e.g. crowding, access to food, housing security, etc.) that impact how illness can spread.” 

    Committee Chair Richard Neal (D-Mass.) opened the hearing by noting, “COVID-19 has shone a light on our country’s centuries-old legacy of inequality. While the factors driving these inequities are complex and multifaceted, their impact on health outcomes have been clearly documented.”

    Ranking Member Kevin Brady (R-Texas) echoed the concerns of the chair by stating, “This virus seeks the vulnerable, the immune-compromised, those with co-morbidities. That people of color are impacted more reveals what we’ve known for generations: that our health system does not serve all and does not meet the unique health characteristics of all Americans.”

    When questioned by committee members about easing telehealth regulations, Dr. Sequist stated that “telehealth is a wonderful opportunity for us to explore,” but warned that there are barriers to telehealth, such as broadband access and ensuring culturally-competent care that addresses the needs of these communities.

    Dr. Hildreth discussed the mistrust low-income and minority communities have for the health system, which can lead to many refusing to get tested or participate in contact tracing. He noted that if historically black medical colleges “are given the resources to conduct testing and contact tracing, among many other related services … the doors in minority communities will be swung open for us. We have cultivated and earned their trust for generations.”

    Dr. Hernandez noted the need for the federal government to continue to fund programs that diversify the physician and health care workforce pipeline, such as the Health Careers and Opportunity Program (HCOP). The AAMC has advocated for increased funding for HCOP, which is done annually through the appropriations process [see Washington Highlights, May 1].