Legislators on the Public Health Committee listened to nearly 12 hours of public testimony, primarily focused on a bill to declare racism a public health crisis in the state of Connecticut. The hearing on Wednesday took up a few bills, but mainly centered on Senate Bill 1, An Act Equalizing Comprehensive Access to Mental, Behavioral and Physical Health Care in Response to the Pandemic.
The bill declares that in the state of Connecticut, racism is recognized as a public health crisis and, if passed, would establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to examine racial disparities in public health across state and local government.
“We know that racism is a public health crisis because whenever there is a public health crisis, it does affect racial minorities and lower-income communities greater than anyone else,” said Sen. Martin Looney, President Pro Tempore of the State Senate. “One of the most striking aspects of the pandemic is the disproportionate toll it’s taken on communities of color. These outcomes are not a result of the disease itself, but inequalities in the social determinants of health.”
The commission will study institutional racism in public health law, and attempt to quantify racial disparities in health outcomes in hospitals, long-term care facilities, and the criminal justice system. It will also examine racial disparities in access to clean environment and healthy food, and look at zoning restrictions and housing disparities. The commission will then develop legislative proposals to address these disparities, and deliver the report to the General Assembly next year.
Both the Connecticut State Medical Society and the Connecticut Hospital Association submitted testimony in support of the bill.
The Connecticut Hospital Association wrote that the organization “supports the broad-based approach set forth in this section, recognizing that, while racism is a fundamental cause of poor health, the problem requires a broad perspective that looks beyond hospitals and healthcare providers, even while recognizing that providers are essential participants in the development of solutions.”
State Rep. Whit Betts, R-Bristol, on a number of occasions asked those testifying to clarify why racism is a public health crisis.
“Something like a pandemic or mental illness, I think that clearly is a public health crisis, but I don’t understand systematic racism,” Betts said. “Clearly there is racism, clearly there are people who are not being served, but it’s not just minorities, and clearly our goal collectively should be to help everybody regardless of color, income, etc. I just don’t understand how this is a public health crisis.”
State Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, a co-sponsor of the bill and doctor of internal medicine, said that “it’s pretty clear that we have a public health crisis with respect to the racial bias in some of the policies, and we are going to be able to help some of the communities that have been left behind, but to suggest that when we do that we are taking resources from another community was probably not accurate.”
State legislatures in Minnesota and Virginia have both declared racism a public health crisis, and here in Connecticut, town councils in 20 different municipalities, including New London, Colchester, and Hartford have also passed similar declarations.
Black and Latino residents of Connecticut are less likely to be insured than white residents, and are more likely to die before reaching adulthood, according to a report from Connecticut Voices for Children.
The bill also establishes a task force to study racial inequities in maternal mortality, which will make recommendations to eliminate racial inequities in maternal mortality. Hospitals will be required to provide implicit bias training to staff members who interact with pregnant women. The legislation also directs the state’s Commissioner of Public Health to increase outreach in an effort to improve early detection of breast cancer among young women of color. Nationally, Black mothers die at three to four times the rate of white mothers, according to the CDC.
Katharine Morris, a graduate student of public policy at the University of Connecticut, shared her mother’s experience of feeling ignored by healthcare professionals when she was giving birth. State Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, asked what about that experience was specific to her racial background.
“Groton is pretty diverse, we have people from all over, all different backgrounds, and it’s been interesting to talk to them about the bias in healthcare,” Somers said. “Some of the comments that I’ve gotten, regardless of what your skin color is or what your background is, sometimes the maternity nurses are just not nice. Was the experience feeling dismissed, or not listened to? Because I’m hearing that consistently across all different races.”
Morris shared that her mother, a Jamaican immigrant, specifically felt dismissed by white doctors, and had a much better experience when treated by a Jamaican healthcare provider.
“I lived in Ansonia and Trumbull before moving to Bridgeport, from this I learned how my zip code could dictate my health and my quality of life,” Morris said. “Not only did my education suffer, my access to healthy food, clean air, unpolluted nature, and opportunities suffered as well. Where there are more people who look like me, I have a lower chance of living a healthy and prosperous life. This is not caused by the character of the city or my fellow residents, but rather the oppression we endure due to the color of our skin.”
Rep. Lezlye Zupkus, R-Cheshire, questioned whether the government had any power to legislate away racism.
“I cannot write a bill to say love one another, love your children, love your family, be a better family unit, we can’t legislate those things,” Zupkus said. “I would love to write a law that we all love our children and take care of our kids and have better family units and all of those things, it just won’t happen. We legislate the speed limit, and who drives 55?”
State Sen. Marilyn Moore, D-Trumbull responded that while “you can’t legislate love, you can start to acknowledge that there is a problem and you are willing to deal with it.”
For Weruche George, a member of the Hamden Human Rights and Relations Commission, the declaration on its own was still meaningful, even if legislators cannot force individuals not to be racist.
“This declaration will spur Connecticut to recognize racism as the public health crisis it is, and address the problem by changing the way our state government works and embedding anti-racist principles in decision-making processes,” George testified. “Systemic racism is a social determinant of health itself, and also produces inequities, from disproportionately high Black maternity and infant death rates, inequities in cancer, asthma, heart and lung diseases, to police brutality, environmental racism and unequal access to healthcare.”
According to Tekisha Everette, executive director of Health Equity Solutions, quantifying disparities across the state is a vital first step to making meaningful change.
“The cumulative impact of these barriers to health is invisible unless we evaluate and seek to address health disparities,” Everette said. “We cannot address a problem we are unwilling to acknowledge.”