Fields, other legislators unveil Colorado Health Equity Plan

In a large-scale endeavor to advance health equity, Sen. Rhonda Fields is sponsoring SB 21- 181, which would create a far-reaching plan to address health inequities in Colorado. The bill would require the state’s Office of Health Equity to assemble a workgroup to design the plan no later than July 1, 2022.

 

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Fields introduced the bill in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee — which she chairs — on Wednesday:

“[This bill will] implement measures to address statewide health disparities due to a variety of different issues in every corner of our state. COVID-19 has highlighted long-standing health equity, which has resulted in an increased risk of sickness and death — especially for people of color.”

Fields said the workgroup will consist of “all the important agencies” in the state — not just the health department — in order to ensure a comprehensive approach to health equity. The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), the Colorado Department of Education (CDE), the Colorado Division of Housing (DOH) and the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing (HCPF) are among the program’s anticipated member organizations.

“[The workgroup] will address some of the structural challenges and barriers that exist in a variety of different departments … If you just work in a silo, we’re not going to get to the issues that we need to address some of the disparities that we’re seeing across our state.”

The plan — something Fields referenced in a conversation last December with State of Reform, as well as at last month’s Colorado Leadership Series — would build on the state’s current Health Disparities Grant Program and give the Office of Health Equity additional responsibilities for promoting equity. 

The office would be able to draw from the existing program’s prevention, early detection and treatment fund to allocate grants that would fund efforts to reduce the risk of future disease in underrepresented populations. These communities would also receive grants through any additional money appropriated by the Legislature for this purpose.

The office is required to generate a report detailing its findings for Colorado’s health disparities by race and ethnicity every two years, starting on or before Jan. 1, 2022. This will include an evaluation of how social determinants of health are affecting different communities, as well as a recommendation on how to address them through collaboration with the health equity commission and other stakeholders.

Senator Don Coram, the other Senate sponsor of the bill, said he hopes the program will address the increased health disparities faced by the state’s rural communities.

Jill Hunsaker-Ryan, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), testified in support of the bill, emphasizing the positive impact it would have on the health of underserved communities of color.

“Communities of color disproportionately have had more cases and more hospitalizations, and in some cases more deaths, both across the nation and in Colorado. The reasons are complex, and they perfectly illustrate the disparities in health outcomes that exist, in general, by race and ethnicity among the leading causes of disease, disability, death, life expectancy and years of potential life lost.”

Kim Bimestefer, executive director of HCPF, also testified in support, saying this bill is “personal” for HCPF. She described some of the unique ways HCPF can contribute to the program:

“We can leverage the dollars we pay to care providers and other key partners by rewarding them financially for closing health care disparities, and this is a powerful tool given our $12 billion budget. We will use the authorities we have over the state’s All Payer Claims Database and CBMS [Colorado Benefits Management System] to improve the accuracy of our state’s data on race in order to improve the shared insights into Colorado’s health disparities.”

The committee voted to advance SB 21-181, referring it to the Senate Appropriations Committee for further consideration.