By Peter Johnson

COVID-19 has disproportionately infected and killed people of color, causing many health care leaders to renew their focus on racism’s role in social determinants of health (SDOH). Since George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police and Black Lives Matter protests took over America’s streets, the conversation about racism in health care has become even more urgent.

A June 16 Brookings Institution analysis of data through June 6 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that “the age-adjusted COVID-19 death rate for Black people is 3.6 times that for whites, and the age-adjusted death rate for Hispanic/Latino people is 2.5 times that for whites.”

According to Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.), spotty health insurance coverage is partly to blame for bad COVID-19 outcomes for people of color. “These racial gaps…reflect a deeply entrenched racial inequity throughout our health care system, and one of the key drivers of these disparities is unequal access to care. The uninsured rate for African Americans is more than 1.6 times higher than the uninsured rate for white Americans,” she said during a June 22 meeting of the House Committee on Education and Labor about the pandemic’s impact on education, health care and the workforce.

In a webinar organized by the Alliance for Health Policy, Adaeze Enekwechi, president of health care consultancy IMPAQ International, said expanding coverage is a critical part of improving health outcomes in communities of color going forward. “Whether it’s through Medicaid or some of the other policy discussion points around Medicare, but I think we need to think long and hard about that,” she said.

Wizdom Powell, director of the Health Disparities Institute at the University of Connecticut, argued that recent mass layoffs and furloughs showed the need to improve coverage continuity and portability in general. She observed people of color are more likely than the population at large to be unemployed or work in industries that do not typically offer health care coverage.

During a panel at the recent AHIP Institute & Expo, Kaiser Permanente Executive Director for Strategic Customer Engagement, Product Innovation and Evaluation Jennifer Christian-Herman observed that an intentional focus on SDOH by employers and contracting plans can drive business value.

CVS Health Corp. executive Garth Graham, M.D., agreed and said that many forward-thinking plans are already working on improving housing, nutrition and transportation for low-income members.