Keynote: A conversation on health equity in Maryland

A keynote conversation on health equity closed out State of Reform’s 2021 Maryland Health Policy Conference. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed health disparities across different communities in the state, spurring the need to shift the framework of health policy. 

The panelists – Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk, Dr. Letitia Dzirasa, Dr. Mohan Suntha, and Brian Pieninck, CEO of CareFirst BlueCross BlueSheild – shared perspectives from all corners of Maryland’s health systems on centering health equity in state policies. 


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Del. Peña-Melnyk recapped the 2021 legislative session, where she worked on several bills addressing health equity. These bills aim to grant wider access to telehealth options, implicit bias training for providers, and implement race and ethnicity data collection aimed to support communities of color impacted most by the COVID-19 pandemic. She also plans on bringing state agencies together to look at issues through a health equity lens. 

Speaking on the state department level, Dr. Dzirasa brought up the importance of placing health care in the larger context of the social determinants of health, and establishing cross-sector relationships with organizations. 

“There’s also this larger responsibility of providing those wraparound and support services. And that’s a collective effort. So that’s going to encompass our community organizations, our faith-based organizations, as well as additional funding, whether it be from the local city, state or federal level.”

The conversation also highlighted the need for data-based approaches to health equity. Dr. Suntha says that incorporating data into future policy decisions will be key to measuring success and keeping organizations accountable. Responding to both Dr. Dzirasa and Dr. Suntha’s points, Pieninck said that health equity data that incorporates social determinants of health will create the most successful solutions going forward. He says that organizations need to start filling in the gaps in health data: 

“Too often, race and ethnicity data is missing, social data is missing, language data is missing. It’s important to recognize that building durable solutions, products, services, analytical models that meet the needs of people have to include who people are, where they’re coming from, what are the social and environmental factors that are influencing their wellbeing.”

With a renewed focus on data collection and incorporating social determinants of health, Maryland’s health care leaders are looking to implement cross-community relationships that ensure health equity across the state.