Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association

ANCHORING EQUITY: Coming Up: June 6 Health Equity Trends Summit

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MHA’s Anchoring Equity blog series profiles the work of our members as they work to advance health equity, diversity, and inclusion in their organizations and in their communities.  

Michael Curry, Esq.

President & CEO,
Massachusetts League of
Community Health Centers

The theme at the Health Equity Compact’s upcoming Health Equity Trends Summit on June 6 is “Health Equity in Action,” where we will follow up on leaders’ commitments from our first summit, showcase progress over the past year, discuss future opportunities, and foster more in-depth engagement and connection. 

The Health Equity Compact (HEC) is comprised of more than 80 leaders of color who aim to advance health equity in the commonwealth. These leaders are all high-level executives from a diverse set of health, business, labor, and philanthropic organizations.

The time is now to arrive at a reasonable interpretation of the facts—that our health system was not designed to serve all Americans, and we must come together to achieve transformational change.

There is further cause for hope as we convene this year. In February, the Healey-Driscoll Administration launched the Advancing Health Equity in Massachusetts initiative, focused on eliminating racial, economic, and regional disparities in health outcomes. Mass General Brigham and Boston Medical Center have joined forces with Mattapan Community Health Center to launch a place-based, health equity initiative in Mattapan to improve cardiometabolic disease outcomes, exemplifying the partnerships between health systems, primary care providers, and community members that support healthier communities.

We invite you to be a part of the dialogue on June 6. You can register here!

Carter G. Woodson, the founder of Negro History Week, now Black History Month, once said, “History is not just the mere gathering of facts. The object of historical study is to arrive at a reasonable interpretation of the facts.” He was offering sage advice for generations to come, not just so-called historians or academics. He was inviting us to look to history for context, inspiration, perspective—the truth.

2024 is a year of anniversaries in Civil Rights. Seventy years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court finally corrected its constitutionally bigoted 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson that introduced the doctrine of “separate but equal.”  It would take a generation before it finally ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that “state laws establishing racial segregation in public schools are unconstitutional, even if the segregated schools are otherwise equal in quality.” Sixty years ago, Congress passed and President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

However, there was also another critical turning point for racial justice and the campaign for health equity in 1964 that few remember. Then, like now, mortality and morbidity rates for African Americans were disparately high, and every facet of society was operating under de jure segregation. Your race, like your demography, was destiny. Many U.S. hospitals were still segregated through the passage and implementation of the Medicare and Medicaid Act, a year later. State and local medical societies were still brazenly discriminating against Black physicians, and the American Medical Association (AMA) had over a decade of exclusion and a practice of undermining of Black medical schools through the commissioning of the Flexner Report in 1910. Abraham Flexner viewed Black medical schools as substandard and recommended that most of them close. But no, wait on it! He also opined that Black physicians should only treat Black patients and spread the fallacy of the untrained Negro physicians that persists today. The data and the policies of the time were unquestionably clear to any objective observer, or historian, that Black lives did not matter.

That same year when hundreds of Black and White activists were converging on Mississippi to challenge segregation under the banner of Freedom Summer, a group of healthcare activists were organizing to draw attention to the inequities in the country’s healthcare system. Led by Dr. Robert Smith out of Mississippi, also known as “the Dr. to the Movement,” the Medical Committee for Human Rights (MCHR) was born. These activist physicians challenged the AMA’s failure to pursue an end to segregation in hospitals, aided civil rights workers during marches, launched a public health clinic in Mississippi, helped to reduce the infant mortality rate in Mississippi and highlighted the inequities in our healthcare system.

Today, as we reflect on these anniversaries and the work of the MCHR, it is our hope that courage has not skipped this generation. We must unweather ourselves from the societal conditions, lack of access and quality, and unequal treatment that leaves some people living sicker and with shorter lives. We must be willing to collaborate, disrupt and innovate in ways that are not natural in a system that relies too heavily on competition, increasing margins and cutting costs, and was built on a foundation of racism.

The work of the Health Equity Compact is born out of MCHR’s tradition. Like those physicians in 1964, these leaders are bringing their lived experience, expertise, and urgency in an attempt to meet the moment. Thanks to their advocacy and the support from our partners, we now know that the annual economic burden of health inequities experienced by populations of color in Massachusetts is $5.9 billion annually, expected to increase to $11.2 billion by 2050. We can pay now or pay greater later!

We are optimistic that the Massachusetts Legislature will eventually pass the Health Equity Compact’s An Act to Advance Health Equity (H.1250, S.799), which would provide bold, statewide, nation-leading policy and institutional practice changes that center racial justice and health equity.