Senator Jo Comerford zooms into UMass to discuss racial heath inequalities

Dean’s Seminar hosts Senator Comerford and her HEALING Act legislation

Collegian+File+Photo

Collegian File Photo

By Jack Underhill, Collegian Contributor

State Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, prompted an invigorating discussion about the HEALING Act, a bill aiming to eliminate racial health inequities at a state level, at the Dean’s Seminar on Tuesday night.

The seminar was hosted by the University of Massachusetts School of Public Health and Health Sciences and conducted over Zoom, with around 80 students, faculty and staff attending. Dean of the School of Public Health and Health Sciences Anna Maria Siega-Riz was in attendance along with Brian Rosman and Frank Robinson, who aided in the creation of this bill and helped answer questions. Comerford began the seminar by asking about the importance of targeting health inequities.

Comerford is in her second term as state senator for the Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester Districts which consist of 24 cities and towns. She introduced the Health Equity at All Levels in Government Act, or HEALING Act, in January 2021 with Representative Liz Miranda, D-Suffolk, whom she is co-sponsoring the bill with.

“What would happen if we evaluated, in the Commonwealth, every single policy and budget decision by considering whether it would help or hurt racial health equity?” Comerford asked. “That was the question that we asked ourselves as we saw the pandemic hit our shores and saw it sweep across the Commonwealth and expose the inequities that we long knew were present.”

Comerford stressed that people of color experienced significant health disparities in asthma hospitalizations, adequate prenatal care and severe maternal morbidity.

“Black residents have a premature mortality rate 1.3 times greater than white residents,” Comerford said. These disparities became more apparent during the pandemic as minorities experienced disparate numbers of COVID tests, hospitalizations and deaths.

“We have to address all the drivers of inequities,” Comerford explained. “We have to do a health-in-all-policies approach because there are numerous social indicators of public health. We have to think of them comprehensively because they all intersect.”

The bill aims to create a health culture that, in law, classifies racism as a public health crisis and formulates a long-term structure functioning on a state level. “Health equity has to be elevated way up; it has to be elevated to the highest level of government. Having it down in any kind of bureaucratic layer will not be sufficient,” Comerford said.

These principles have to be “seasoned in overtime,” which is why Comerford is enacting two phases for both the legislative and executive branches that will effectively implement this equity-for-all goal.

Risa Silverman, the director of the Office for Public Health Practice and Outreach, hosted the seminar and directed questions asked by the audience toward Comerford during the second half of the discussion. Silverman has a great interest in health equity, so naturally she was excited to invite Comerford to come and speak about this new bill.

“I think she did a really good job telling us that in order to reach health equity and have policy change, you need to have cultural change in the government,” Silverman said. “It took me a long time to realize that senators and representatives are just like us, and they actually really want to hear from us. They are really approachable.”

Kene Orakwue, a second-year graduate student on the Health Policy and Management track, attended the discussion. Orakwue has sat in on meetings with Comerford and worked alongside Representative Miranda.

“I think as a public health major in general, we are in a very applied field, and so we are able to hear the conversation of what is happening in the real world and apply what we’re learning and our understanding from the classroom,” Orakwue said.

It is not only Massachusetts that is interested in health equity legislation.

“What we are talking about in Massachusetts has been done, to some extent, in Minnesota, California, Washington and elsewhere,” Comerford said.

The bill is set to have a hearing on Thursday, Oct. 28, and Comerford encourages anyone in support of the bill to voice their support.

Comerford is hopeful that the bill will be passed. “We should all feel emboldened by the kind of advocacy, awareness, and unwillingness to settle for status quo anymore in the commonwealth, that’s what I feel bubbling up. So, I’m hopeful that we will take action.”

Jack Underhill can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @JackUnderhill16.