Racial health disparities were under the spotlight this week on Capitol Hill. Rodney B. Jones, Sr., CEO of East Liberty Health Center in Pittsburgh, PA, was among the witnesses who provided virtual testimony before the Senate Special Committee on Aging in a hearing that focused on COVID-19’s impact on racial health disparities. Jones gave a grim assessment of how the virus has cut a swath along racial lines, particularly among people living in poverty.
“The virus has become a flashpoint on racial inequities, financial inequities and social determinants of health,” he told lawmakers. “COVID-19 has exposed our health care system’s vulnerabilities and revealed our inability to respond effectively to a pandemic. It has also highlighted the fact that low-income older adults and older adults of color have suffered in significantly greater proportion than their white counterparts.”
Jones described the challenges of his local patient population and how environmental factors, such as where one lives, access to care, housing, and social support, can determine one’s health. At East Liberty Health Center, a majority of the 11,294 patients who comprise the service area are over 50 years old, live in poverty, and have underlying health conditions, such as hypertension, diabetes and obesity. Providing patients with regular preventive care necessary to maintain their health has been problematic during the pandemic because of stay-at-home orders or because they are simply afraid. Most health centers like East Liberty have the ability to reach out through telehealth, but for people living in poverty such technology isn’t always an option.
“Older adults, particularly older adults of color who are low-income, are less likely to have the technology necessary to schedule a telehealth appointment,” Jones said. “This can have two effects: either older adults must leave their home to visit one of our health center sites even though they are encouraged to stay home to remain safe from the virus, or they must go without the primary and preventive care they need.”
Jones underscored the need for Medicaid coverage and sustained funding for health centers to continue helping populations stay healthy through the pandemic and beyond.
“A strong public health system requires a strong system of Community Health Centers, which must include long-term, stable funding,” said Jones. “”[Health centers] will be critical in the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic with an increased number of unemployed and uninsured community members and an increased demand for essential primary care services. To ensure they are there, health centers need long-term financial stability, past November 30, 2020, to maintain current services, recruit and hire providers, and plan and deliver reliable, quality services.”
Many thanks to Rodney for lending his expertise and time to discuss what health centers are doing to address racial health disparities for seniors. To watch the recording, click here.