Health equity push expands to include disability and gender

Press Release

An initiative to reduce health disparities linked to race and ethnicity has widened to include women and people with disabilities, thanks to a bill just passed by the State Senate.

Health disparities are gaps in access to care or in actual outcomes that confront certain groups disproportionately.  As they relate to disabilities, health disparities include inaccessible doctors’ offices, ill-equipped examination rooms and frustrating communications barriers.

The Senate bill establishes a new Office of Health Equity and ties it to the already-established Mass. Health Disparities Council.  In 2013 State Sen. Mike Barrett, D-Lexington, Senate Chair of the Disabilities Caucus, added disability to race and ethnicity as part of the Council’s mandate.  Under the terms of this most recent legislation, the director of the new Office will serve on the Council, whose mission is to advise the Office.

Says Barrett, “The Senate’s action grows out of recent findings in health disparities research that highlight differences in care and outcomes by both disability and gender.”

He points to a 2013 survey of people with disabilities in Massachusetts.  62% of respondents were concerned with access to mental health services; 54% with transportation to the doctor’s office; and 45% with the availability of accessible gyms.

The problem gained national attention several years ago, following a study done at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield.  Dr. Tara Lagu created a fictional patient who weighed 200 pounds, could not get out of a wheelchair without assistance and needed a specialized medical evaluation.

Researchers called doctors in four major cities to book a visit for the made-up patient.  20% of the doctors’ offices refused to make an appointment.  Fewer than 10% reported having appropriate equipment or trained employees.

Disparities in access, Barrett says, lead all too often to disparities in outcomes.  According to Massachusetts data from the Centers for Disease Control, people with disabilities are more likely to have high blood pressure, to be overweight or obese and to have symptoms of psychological distress.

Barrett notes the problem is even more egregious for racial and ethnic minorities with disabilities.  According to a federal report, in terms of health outcomes, “Minorities with disabilities are doubly burdened by their minority status.”

Similarly, women of color face distinct challenges.  In Massachusetts, for example, infant mortality rates are nearly double for babies born to black women.

Barrett directed special praise at Senate Ways & Means Chair Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, for amending House legislation to include provisions related to people with disabilities and women.  “I hope the House goes along with the Senate and refines the missions of both Council and Office to align with the latest research,” Barrett said.

“Women and people with disabilities shouldn’t have second class status,” Barrett added, “and there are economies of scale to a disparities focus that respects these four under-served groups.”