An initiative to reduce health disparities linked to race and ethnicity should be widened to include people with disabilities, according to experts and self-advocates who turned out en masse at the State House.
A proposed new Office of Health Equity is directed explicitly to work in tandem with the existing Massachusetts Health Disparities Council, already tasked with a three-part focus on race, ethnicity and disability. Yet recent legislative action, little noticed, seeks to exclude people with disabilities from the scope of the new Office, de-aligning its mission from that of the Council.
Supporters of an Office that includes people with disabilities testified before the Health Care Financing Committee in favor of a bill proposed by State Senator Mike Barrett (D-Lexington); his legislation would provide that people with disabilities are not cut from the jurisdiction of the Office.
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 research findings are eye-popping,” said Barrett, who co-chairs the Legislature’s Disabilities Caucus. “People with disabilities are not second-class citizens. Exclusion from the new Office is not an option.”
Groups that testified in support of Barrett’s bill ranged from the Perkins School for the Blind to the Arc of Massachusetts.
Roz Rubin, CEO of the Greater Waltham Arc, which serves people with intellectual disabilities in Barrett’s district, also testified in support.
Two experts, Dr. Monika Mitra of the Lurie Institute at Brandeis University and Dr. Lisa Iezzoni of Harvard Medical School, discussed their research on pregnancy. They found that many women with disabilities are not weighed during their pregnancy, which goes against standard practice.
In 2013, Mitra conducted a 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.
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 is also backing another Senate proposal that would add health inequities confronted by women, as well as people with disabilities, to the mission of the Office. He directed special praise at Senate Ways & Means Chair Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, for pushing inclusive legislation.
Dr. Susan Abend, CEO of the Right Care Now Project and a Fellow of the American College of Physicians, said that, “An inclusive Office of Health Equity holds the most promise for assuring that everyone gets the right care at the right time in the right setting.”