A state panel to respond to racial disparities in public health follows five straight years of legislation failing to make that happen leading to COVID-19’s disproportionately heavy toll on black communities.
Delegate Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha, was the lead sponsor of a bill five years ago that would have created a 20-member minority health advisory team studying public health threats facing West Virginia’s black communities.
Rowe has sponsored it every year since — only for it to die in committee each time; not one vote has ever been taken on it in five legislative sessions. A Senate bill mirroring the house version has been introduced three times since 2016. Those bills all died in committee without a vote.
“I think that we clearly would have collected enough data, and then focused [legislators] on that data to show that African Americans really need special assistance in regard to the public health initiatives and programs,” Rowe said.
COVID-19 has brought to the fore the racial disparities Rowe’s legislation targeted. The virus’ mortality rate is 2.6 times higher for black people in the U.S. than white people, 2.3 times higher than for Latinos and 2.4 times higher than for Asian Americans, according to American Public Media, which compiled data from 39 states and Washington, D.C. West Virginia did not provide data for the study.
Black people account for 13 percent of the population and 27 percent of COVID-19 deaths in states that released data.
Viola York Horton, 88, a black woman from Marion County, was the first West Virginian to die from the virus.
Officials have not identified the members of the new task force. The panel “can assist us in providing accurate information and timely information,” on COVID-19 cases connected to black communities, Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Crouch said Thursday during Gov. Jim Justice’s daily news briefing.
Rowe’s proposed advisory team would have issued annual reports outlining its findings on the program and suggesting solutions to the biggest problems facing the state’s black communities.
If the bill was passed in 2016, the team would have written four reports by now. Those reports could have been vital to understanding the root causes of racial health disparities in West Virginia, Rowe said, and lawmakers could have acted on those findings.
Response to the pandemic by state officials likely would have placed a higher priority on minority health from the beginning, Rowe said.
His proposed 20-member team would have included the following heads of academic institutions and state agencies, or a designee assigned from that office:
- Dean of the WVU School of Public Health
- Director of the Marshall University Graduate Program in Public Health
- Dean of the WVU School of Medicine
- Dean of the Marshall University School of Medicine
- Dean of the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine
- Commissioner of the Bureau for Behavioral Health and Health Facilities
- Commissioner of the Bureau for Medical Services
- Commissioner of the Bureau for Children and Families
- State superintendent of schools
The other half of the board would have included representatives from:
- A local health department
- A free health care clinic
- A health insurance provider
- A hospital
- A representative of the Minority Health Advisory Group
- An individual to represent community and technical colleges
- A health care provider recruiting entity
- A federally qualified health center
- Two people to represent the general public
The coordinator of the Office of Minority Health within the Bureau for Public Health would serve as the chairperson, according to the bill.
The bill would have given the state’s largest black communities the ability to apply for a pilot program that would have been monitored by the advisory team.
These communities would use existing resources in government agencies and community organizations and placed them in such fields as mental health, housing development, education and the arts.
Some lawmakers haven’t shown any interest in creating the task force, and would rather have the state health officer deal with minority health issues, Rowe said.
The state health department’s COVID-19 dashboard will now include the number and location of black West Virginians who have tested positive, Crouch said, and also the number deaths related to the virus.
The data breakdown, which Crouch expected to be up by Monday, will be similar to the health department nursing home page.
“The governor has directed us to add to our website, information on our African American community as another vulnerable group in the state that we’re going to provide some focus and some information on,” Crouch said.