Democratic lawmakers are introducing new legislation Thursday to begin addressing the health disparities that have led to a disproportionate number of minorities contracting and dying from the coronavirus.
The Health Enterprises Zones Act seeks to incentivize health care providers to work in disadvantaged communities where longstanding problems with access to quality health care have put minority and low-income communities at greater risk for poor outcomes if they contract the coronavirus.
The bill will be introduced by Democratic Rep. Anthony Brown, whose congressional district has been among those been hard hit by the coronavirus in Maryland.
“For far too long, communities of color and underserved populations have faced unacceptable barriers in our health care system,” Brown said in a statement. “From access, to diagnosis, treatment and ultimate medical outcomes - these disparities have resulted in preventable deaths and hardship for families.
“That status quo is unacceptable. We need long term solutions to address the inequities that have plagued our society for far too long,” he added.
Several studies have found that minority populations, especially African Americans are disproportionately dying from the coronavirus.
Despite representing 13.4% of the population, counties with high black populations account for almost 60% of coronavirus cases, according to one recent study.
While racial and ethnic data is available for most but not all coronavirus cases, the data that is available shows a clear trend, especially for African Americans. According to the APM Research Lab, which has analyzed Covid-19 racial and ethnic data, the mortality rate was 2.3 times higher for black Americans than for white Americans as of early June.
Experts say some of the disparity in outcomes can be explained by co-morbidities – conditions like asthma, heart disease and diabetes – that are more prevalent in minority communities. But access to consistent, quality health care, healthy food, clean air and water also plays a role.
This federal proposal is similar to an initiative launched in Maryland in 2013, in which the state recruited physicians and other health workers to “zones” targeted for increased access to care for minority populations based on life expectancy, Medicaid use and other factors.
A 2018 study of that program by the Johns Hopkins School of Public health found that in the zones, insurers and patients incurred a net savings of $108.5 million, compared to the program’s $15.1 million cost over a four-year period.
Health care practitioners would be eligible for tax credits, student loan repayment, federal grants and bonuses on Medicare reimbursements for employers.
“With its disproportionate impact on people of color, the coronavirus pandemic has raised awareness of long-standing health disparities among African Americans and other minority communities in Maryland,” said Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Democrat of Maryland, in a statement. “The Health Enterprise Zones Act would incentivize health care providers to ensure our communities receive the care they deserve and take steps to address racial disparities that plague our communities.”
Brown’s legislation is co-sponsored by Hoyer, and Democratic Reps. Terri Sewell of Alabama, Ann McLane Kuster of New Hampshire, Lisa Blunt Rochester of Delaware and Robin Kelly of Illinois.
In the Senate, Democratic Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Sherrod Brown of Ohio have introduced legislation proposing the creation of a Covid-19 Racial and Ethnic Disparities Task Force that would establish an interagency group to address the racial disparity in coronavirus cases and deaths.