While industry leaders have made progress in addressing some disparities in health care, it’s clear that many inequities remain in place. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated those inequities, which some experts discussed at the 2022 Alaska State of Reform Health Policy Conference.
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Veronica Sandoval, Principal at Genentech’s Chief Diversity Office, said Genentech studied epidemiology data, including hospitalization rates for Black, Latino, Native American, and Alaska Indian patients during the pandemic.
“They were being hit hard,” Sandoval said. “When you saw the hospitalization rates, they were the ones that were being hospitalized the fastest and dying at faster rates.”
Celeste Hodge Growden, President and CEO of the Alaska Black Caucus, said the pandemic also exacerbated economic disparities for working-class Alaskans. Workers who had jobs that were deemed to be essential were taking every-day risks for wages that were not sustainable, Growden said.
“We know wages for people working those jobs during the pandemic were ridiculous,” Growden said. “These are grocery store workers, people at health care facilities, [workers] that care for our children, day care providers, and many others. Many so-called essential jobs are the lowest paid, and these jobs are disproportionately held by people of color. Those wages need to be raised.”
Those workers also had to work overtime hours during the pandemic, which made it harder for them to address personal living requirements, Growden said.
“Workers often work more than one full-time job at multiple businesses requiring not 40, but 80 hours a week,” Growden said. “This makes it harder to care for family, especially children and elders. In Anchorage, working only 40 hours a week requires a wage of at least $21 an hour. With inflation, that is now probably closer to $25 an hour. Many retail and health care jobs pay less than $20 an hour and that is simply not enough for people to survive on.”
Cheryl Dalena, Co-Chair of Healthy Alaskans, said the organization recently partnered with the Healthy and Equitable Communities Committee to try and address health equity issues.
“Now this may be a baby step,” Dalena said. “But we knew we had to start somewhere. We partnered with the committee, and they operate to meet the goals of the Healthy and Equitable Communities strategic plan, which received [state] funding to address health equity and the impacts of COVID. They have goals to work directly at the community level. They have goals to hear from people that are experiencing and living these disparities.”
Growden said the Alaska Black Caucus is also working with its partners on community outreach efforts.
“The most important thing is to develop real relationships and partnerships with the communities you’re trying to serve,” Growden said. “Service providers must think outside the box and go directly to the people in those communities, their homes, churches, and wherever they are. Social service agencies must also prioritize employing people who reflect the communities they are serving.”
Sandoval said Genentech recently formed the Advancing Inclusive Research External Council to help address equity issues.
“These are 14 prominent clinicians, researchers, investigators, and patient advocates across the country that range from oncology, ophthalmology, neuroscience, law, lung cancer, [and] Alzheimer’s [fields] to help us think from a lens of diversity, inclusion, and equity,” Sandoval said. “They can help us think through barriers and how we can truly, as an industry, make sure the future of clinical trials is embedding diversity, inclusion, and equity, because that’s where it’s going to start as far as scientific innovations.”