On a bipartisan vote, the state Senate passed wide-ranging legislation Tuesday that declares racism a public health crisis, an issue proponents contend was exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and needs to finally be addressed given the long-standing health care disparities in Connecticut.
The legislation, designated Senate Bill 1 to underscore its importance to the Senate's majority Democrats, passed on a 30-5 vote. It now awaits action in the House of Representatives.
"This past year illuminated the inequities within our health systems," said state Sen. Marilyn Moore, D-Bridgeport.
"And I intentionally used the word illuminate because they've always been there. But perhaps they existed because they were acceptable practices. But COVID-19 was the equalizer. And when we address these inequities, we make the systems better for all."
The bill creates a new state commission that will be charged with documenting the effect of racism on public health in Connecticut and coming up with its first strategic plan, by Jan. 1, 2022, to begin eliminating health disparities and inequities in areas ranging from access to quality health care to air and water quality.
"There's no doubt that inequities exist in our health care system,'' said Sen. Mary Daughtery Abrams, D-Meriden, co-chairman of the General Assembly's Public Health Committee. "Today we get to decide, will be perpetuate the status quo or will we move forward towards health equity for all?"
The top two Republican Senate leaders both voted for the legislation. Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, the second-highest ranking GOP member, said while the bill isn't perfect, the state needs to promote opportunity and equality.
"If this bill helps us move forward in the right direction together, if this helps us unravel that onion, layers by layers of the problem that we have, so we can get to the core, then we can eliminate racism in this country and we can provide equality here in our state, and around our nation," Formica said.
The Connecticut General Assembly is the latest state legislature to consider bills this year declaring racism as a public health crisis. The Vermont House of Representatives, for example, passed a non-binding resolution last week that declared systemic racism affecting public health ultimately impacts economic, employment, housing and health opportunities and outcomes of minority populations. Many cities across the country have already enacted similar declarations.
Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, a medical doctor, said there is "quite concerning" data in Connecticut that highlights the effect racism has on public health in Connecticut. Anwar gave the example of Black men with prostate cancer having a mortality rate that's about double the rate for white men.
"If you look at individual disease-by-disease pattern, you actually have a clear understanding that there is a problem that we have and we need to address it,'' Anwar said.
A new study of the recruitment and retention of minority health care workers is included in the bill, as well as a provision that requires state agencies, boards and commission to collect demographic data concerning race. Also, Connecticut hospitals will be required to include implicit bias training as part of their staff training and working group will be created to improve breast cancer awareness and prevention, especially within communities of color.
Additionally, the state Department of Public Health is required to study Connecticut's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some Republican senators questioned why that agency, which handled much of the state's pandemic response, would be the one responsible for such a review. The GOP members proposed an amendment, requiring a third party to conduct the study, but it failed.
The bill also creates a new gun violence intervention and prevention advisory committee that will coordinate various groups, including community outreach organizations and victim service providers, to work on a plan to reduce street-level gun violence in the state. The provision comes in the wake of a spate of urban shootings, including the fatal shooting of a 3-year-old boy in Hartford in April. Randell Jones was in a parked car with his mother, other relatives and a male passenger in the city's North End when another vehicle pulled next to them and someone opened fire.