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Bill Zeros in on Health Equity, Racism as Public Health Crisis

The bill would tap the CDC to address racism as a public health crisis and establish an office investigating health equity and disparities.

New legislation introduced by Elizabeth Warren, Ayanna Pressley, and Barbara Lee, sets out to assert racism a public health crisis and establish an anti-racism center within the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.

If passed, the bicameral legislation would also establish a law enforcement violence prevention program under the National Center for Injury Prevention within the CDC.

This legislation comes on the heels of a racial reckoning within the medical industry. The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, has disproportionately affected Black and Brown communities compared to White communities. Black people are three-times as likely to contract the illness than their White counterparts, and about twice as likely to die from it, the CDC reported in November.

Those disparities have highlighted other racial health disparities—Black people are more likely to have certain chronic illnesses—stemming from systemic racism and health inequity.

“Structural racism is a public health crisis that continues to ravage Black, Brown and indigenous communities, deny us access to quality health care, and exacerbate the longstanding racial disparities in health outcomes,” Pressley, the congresswoman from Massachusetts’s 7th district, said in a statement put out by her office.

“To confront and dismantle the racist systems and practices that create these inequities, we need robust, comprehensive research on the public health impacts of structural racism and policy solutions to bring an end to these disparities once and for all. Congress must pass our bill, which is exactly the type of bold, responsive legislation we have a mandate to deliver. Our communities deserve nothing less.”

The National Center for Anti-Racism set up in this bill would spearhead the research needed to better understand how systemic racism and implicit bias affects healthcare and health outcomes.

Specifically, the Center would set up research grants and conduct its own research into racism in medicine; set up at least three centers of excellence regarding racial health equity; drive public education campaigns to raise awareness about the impacts of racism in healthcare; and consult with other CDC offshoots to ensure various actions consider health equity.

The Center would also formally recognize racism as a public health crisis.

"It’s clear that COVID-19 has exacerbated decades of disparities in health outcomes for Black and Brown people,” Warren, a senator also from Massachusetts, said in the statement. “My bill with Congresswoman Pressley and Congresswoman Lee to create anti-racist federal health policy that studies and addresses these deep disparities in health outcomes at their roots is how we start treating health disparities like the public health crises they are."

The Law Enforcement Violence Prevention Program would establish the “physical and psychological violence perpetuated by law enforcement” as a public health threat, the lawmakers said.

Data shows that violent interactions between law enforcement and people of color can result in death, injury, trauma, and stress, all of which ultimately affect health outcomes for people of color, the lawmakers added.

Programming introduced in this legislation will be instrumental in understanding the systems in place that help perpetuate health inequities, Lee said. Health disparities are not borne of biological differences nor in a vacuum.

The research and insights to be gleaned from both CDC offices would help leadership better understand the systems in place that have resulted in the racial health disparities seen before and during the COVID-19 pandemic to prevent further inequities in the future, Lee stated.

“The COVID-19 public health and economic crisis has illustrated the painful legacy of systemic racism in our country,” Lee, a congresswoman from California’s 13th district, explained.

“Black, Brown, and other communities of color are dying at disproportionate rates from this pandemic. We have a moral responsibility to not only confront, but dismantle and denounce centuries of racism in our public health system.”

This legislation was originally introduced in the previous congress in September 2020. It has gained co-sponsorship from a litany of Representatives and Senators.

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