Lawmaker confident health equity office will get another shot

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Update: The House Public Health Committee will hear testimony on the bill on April 7. A live feed will be available online here.

AUSTIN (KXAN) — When we spoke to Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, last November via Zoom, he was sitting in his COVID-19 safe haven at home preparing for the current legislative session.

He is now at the Texas capitol, and has followed through on his plan to fight to reinstate a state office that used to seek out and tackle health inequities among Texans.

The legislative bill Coleman filed March 12 would direct the office to help implement programs and strategies to address the social factors that cause health disparities related to race, ethnicity, culture, socioeconomic status, gender, age, language and region. The office would serve under the umbrella of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission but also work with other state agencies to achieve its goals.

Coleman believes the employees’ first order of business should be to create a comprehensive report on the disproportionate impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on different communities. He said the story hasn’t changed even with the vaccine rollout.

“I feel like people of color were still left behind and not treated equally,” said Coleman.

In February, CNN reported Black and brown communities were being vaccinated at far lower rates. The investigation pointed out in Harris County, where Coleman lives and serves, only a small percentage of the county’s vaccine providers were in majority-Hispanic ZIP Codes. Whiter, wealthier areas of the county had a higher concentration of provider locations.

Coleman said when he got his own vaccination, no one took down demographic information, even though it is mandated by the federal government and many people are being asked to fill out a form that asks about race and ethnicity.

“I think what happens is people go fast, and when they go fast, they skip steps,” said Coleman.

This week, his proposed legislation that also renames the Center for Elimination of Disproportionality and Disparities to something much easier to say: the Office for Health Equity, was referred to the House Public Health Committee, which Rep. Coleman serves on.

He said he planned on asking the chair of the committee this week for a hearing on the bill.

Funding in federal COVID relief bill

The biggest hang up for just about every bill is money, and even more so during a financially lean session. KXAN’s investigative report last November described why and how the office was defunded in 2017.

Coleman believes he will have a much easier time convincing fellow lawmakers to support the bill now that it doesn’t appear the money will have to come from the state’s general fund. Coleman said the funding needed to revive the office will likely come from the feds in the $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill signed by President Joe Biden in early March.

Biden also signed an executive order in January that outlined steps federal agencies need to take to address the disproportionate and severe impact of the coronavirus on communities of color and underserved populations. The federal order calls for the creation of a COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force. It’s a step that sounds very familiar to what Coleman was already working on 20 years ago when Texas lawmakers passed his bill in 2001 that created the Health Disparities Task Force.

Next steps

If Coleman’s bill gets voted out of committee, it will move to the Calendars Committee and then go to the House floor for an up or down vote. Next, it will be sent to the Senate or the Senate version can come over to the House.

“This is the beginning, not the end,” said Coleman. “I believe that the COVID pandemic has exposed — just like many other general illnesses and disproportionate data and disproportionate circumstances — have exposed the fact that we don’t have an equitable health system, and we need to create an equitable health system no matter who it is.”

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