Health care coalition finds its footing in social justice fight

But as Rush University Medical Center’s Dr. David Ansell says: “You get one point for pointing out the problem and 100 points for fixing it.”

Along with the Illinois Health & Hospital Association, the coalition—an offshoot of the city of Chicago’s Racial Equity Rapid Response Team—is launching a new program to help health care organizations across the state reduce systemic racism and health disparities. As the coalition expands beyond Chicago, it’s bolstered by Illinois’ new equity-focused health care law and the nation’s renewed focus on racial justice.

Even before COVID-19 started spreading, disparities in access to food, housing, education, safety and wealth led to a 30-year difference in life expectancy between Streeterville and Englewood. But the pandemic forced Chicago-area business leaders to acknowledge the link between structural racism and poor health outcomes. 

African Americans make up less than one-third of the city’s population, but as of May 26 they accounted for 39 percent of COVID-19 deaths, according to the Chicago Department of Public Health. The death rate for Black Chicagoans is more than double that of non-Latino white residents. Meanwhile, Latinos make up roughly 30 percent of the city’s population, but they accounted for 33 percent of deaths.

“If it hadn’t been for George Floyd and all these unfortunate injustices that happened in our country, I don’t think all 44 (health care) organizations would have come together like this,” says Brenda Battle, who co-leads the coalition and is vice president of the University of Chicago Medicine’s Urban Health Initiative. “If we hadn’t seen the impact that COVID has had in our communities, it just wouldn’t have happened.”

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As anchors in the communities they serve, health care organizations “have a responsibility to end these issues of injustice,” Battle says, but it takes leadership to ensure initiatives such as this one don’t fizzle out.

That’s why coalition leaders and the Illinois Health & Hospital Association in June are rolling out a “racial equity progress report” for health care organizations to complete annually. The “quality improvement tool”—developed with support from the Civic Consulting Alliance and consultancy Oliver Wyman—aims to determine each organization’s baseline and identify opportunities for improvement, says Adam Kohlrus, assistant vice president of quality, safety and health policy for the trade group, which represents Illinois’ more than 200 hospitals.

Participating hospitals and clinics will report what they’re doing to promote board diversity and ensure that the communities they serve are represented in the makeup of their workforce, among other racial equity metrics. The goal is to have more than 150 organizations complete the first progress report by year-end, Kohlrus says.

Although the reports won’t be made public, they eventually will be used to create a plan to improve pay equity and charity care, among other policies, Kohlrus says.

Providing anti-racism training and increasing access to health care services are among the seven resolutions agreed upon by the coalition last year. While all the commitments are connected, it’s particularly important to focus on hiring locally and promoting leaders of color, says Ansell, who co-leads the coalition and is senior vice president for community health equity at Rush. “The health care industry has a huge opportunity to create career ladders into wealth from our communities,” he says.

In addition to the work being done collectively, hospitals and clinics are reviewing their internal policies and procedures in the midst of a transformative moment for the industry and the country.

For example, Access Community Health Network, which has its own task force on racial justice and health equity, aims to make sure at least 30 percent of the vendors it works with are minority-owned.

“The more we’re transparent in what we’re doing, the more our boards will hold us accountable and—more importantly—the community will hold us accountable,” says Access CEO Donna Thompson. “That’s the piece now that’s different. It’s not just one community voice like you saw 20 or 30 years ago. There’s a lot of voices, and these voices aren’t going away.”

It’s not just private organizations working to address systemic inequities in the wake of high-profile police killings and the pandemic.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker last month signed the health care pillar of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus’ anti-racism agenda. The law aims to address long-standing health inequities by mandating that medical professionals undergo implicit bias training, lowering taxes on blood sugar testing products and requiring a racial equity impact assessment for future hospital closure applications, among other measures.

At least 10 measures didn’t make it into the legislation as lawmakers focused on pieces they knew would pass, says state Sen. Mattie Hunter, D-Chicago. That’s where S.B. 1840 comes in.

The stand-alone bill aims to further hold hospitals accountable by requiring more transparency around charity care and financial assistance data. For example, hospitals would be required to report the total amount of free care provided to low-income patients in the emergency department, and chains would be required to report such data for each individual hospital within the system. As of now, the largest hospitals in Cook County, with the exception of Cook County Health’s Stroger Hospital, spend a minuscule percentage of their revenue on charity care.

“We have to seize the moment and take advantage of everything that’s going on to bring about change,” Hunter says, “because we don’t know when the next time something is going to happen that’s going to bring everyone together.”

via Crain’s Chicago Business

May 28, 2021 at 06:31AM

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