BOSTON – A Cabinet-level office focused on equity, improvements to food access and oral health and a stronger local public health system are among the ideas put forward Thursday by a task force created under a 2020 state law to suggest ways to address the health disparities illuminated by COVID-19.
The health equity task force’s members voted to approve a final report containing the recommendations during a virtual meeting. Rep. Donald Wong, a Saugus Republican who chairs the House Asian Caucus, voted no on the report, as did Hirak Shah and Beverly Stables, aides to and appointees of the Senate and House minority leaders.
“There are no perfect reports out there. If our goal is to wait for the perfect, we would be doing this indefinitely,” said Dr. Assaad Sayah of Cambridge Health Alliance, who co-chaired the task force with Michael Curry of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers.
Rep. Carlos GonzÃ¡lez said he was concerned by Wong’s vote against the report, and asked his fellow lawmaker if he wanted to discuss the reasons behind it. Wong indicated he’d be willing to do so offline, but not during the livestreamed video chat.
“This group has done a lot of good,” he said. “I agree with a lot of things, but I think maybe I’ll sit down and talk to a few of you in private on some of the things that I maybe do not agree totally with.”
The 99-page report’s 31 recommendations are divided into broad categories — ongoing COVID-19 response, strengthening access to health care and other services, addressing social factors in health, strengthening the local and state public health system, integrating equity and resilience into emergency and disaster preparedness and prioritizing equity in state government.
Curry and Sayah wrote in the executive summary that some of the most important recommendations include using “an equity lens in investing” federal relief funds and treating the report as “a blueprint to set in motion enduring structures within state government to make durable progress to advance health equity.”
“We are particularly proud of the recommendations that position Massachusetts to become an ‘equity leader’ among states by building structures and systems that prioritize equity within state government so that we are never in this place again with the next pandemic or public health emergency,” they wrote. “We do this by calling for the creation of a Cabinet level equity leader, an Equity in All Policies approach, and an After Action Review of the pandemic response with an equity lens, an equity analysis of how federal COVID-19 relief dollars are being invested, and more.”
Among immediate actions, the group recommends promoting vaccine equity, continuing and enhancing the state’s Stop the Spread free COVID-19 testing program, and funding research on intermediate and long-term effects of COVID-19.
Specific policies flagged in the report include investing in community health center “rate adequacy,” extending MassHealth’s maternal postpartum care coverage, requiring universally free school meals, providing legal counsel in eviction and foreclosure proceedings, making driver’s licenses available to all residents regardless of immigration status, and adopting standard and consistent demographic data collection practices to measure progress toward equity.
During Thursday morning’s discussion, several task force members referred to the report as a “blueprint” and said they hoped it would serve as a catalyst for ongoing work toward eliminating health inequities.
“As you know, the legislative process sometimes is slower than what we want it to be, but it’s our role to be intentional about making this not only a document, but a living document that breathes and continues to walk,” GonzÃ¡lez said.
Outside of the State House, Baystate Health’s Frank Robinson said he plans to use the report as the basis for a proposal he will present next week to the system’s trustees.
“To the extent to which the board adopts it, then we’re going to breath life into the recommendations, both as a health system as we shift and reorient our investments toward greater public health and as we try to influence development of a more vibrant, integrated, capable public health system,” he said.
Jeffrey SÃ¡nchez, a former state representative who now is now a senior advisor at Rasky Partners, said he has served on several similar health equity panels over the years and encouraged his counterparts to seize the attention the pandemic has brought to the issue to “make this one matter.”
“We’re in a post-pandemic economic recovery. We should be in a post-pandemic health recovery for all of our communities,” he said.
The task force was created under a law signed in June 2020, mandating specific COVID-19 data collection and reporting. Its report was originally due Aug. 1, and that deadline was extended twice, ultimately until Feb. 28, 2021. Prior to Thursday’s meeting, the panel last convened publicly on Feb. 23.
The executive summary said the group “is pleased that policymakers have already implemented many initial recommendations included in the October 2020 Interim Report and those discussed in public hearings and meetings throughout this process.”