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State Equity Panel Focused On Data, Vaccine, Virus Spread Mitigation

Data collection and reporting, vaccine distribution and funding for COVID-19 response initiatives are identified as "critical priorities" for the state to pursue, in a preliminary report approved Wednesday by members of a state health equity task force.

The panel, made up primarily of doctors and state lawmakers, was created as part of a law Gov. Charlie Baker signed in June to address disparate health outcomes for underserved or underrepresented populations.

After last week acknowledging the tension between a belief that a wide-ranging array of policies could help improve health inequities, and a tight economic picture that could limit what's feasible, the task force divided its recommendations into two areas: three priority steps "that must urgently be taken now to guide the response efforts," and a list of additional near-term actions that it supports, but where advocacy efforts are being led by other groups.

"I'm excited that this is going to be out there and a real, live document to be considered by the Legislature, with the intention of supporting the people that we work so hard for," task force co-chair and Cambridge Health Alliance CEO Dr. Assaad Sayeh said of the report, which the group plans to post on its page on the Legislature's website.

The task force plans to hold additional meetings and two more public hearings, after a first hearing in September, as it works to produce a final report. During Wednesday's meeting, which was held via videoconference, members stressed that many more ideas would be considered for the final report.

Jeff Sanchez, a former state representative who is now a senior advisor at Rasky Partners, said he could think of "100 other initiatives" beyond those in the interim report, but wanted to make sure the task force did not "dilute the work that we've done so far to try to get the legislature to move on particular issues right now."

Sanchez made those comments in response to Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz's suggestion that the group add a bill that would authorize driver's license access for undocumented immigrants to the list of longer-term policy ideas that it supports. That list, as presented to the panel Wednesday, includes housing stability and food security measures, a gradual increase to cash assistance benefits, emergency paid sick leave, "decarceration in the context of COVID-19," telehealth parity and coverage, children's health care access, and behavioral health equity.

Chang-Diaz said a subgroup of the task force had recommended that the driver's license bill also be included, and she suggested it be added as an amendment, which the panel agreed to. She said the bill would give people whose immigration status now makes them ineligible for licenses a chance to avoid crowded public transit.

"It is both a means to allow people to mitigate their risk of infection and a means to enable individuals and families to earn some of the financial capacity that we're trying to get to them through these other means, via state spending in most other contexts on this and other slides," Chang-Diaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat, said. "It was just counterintuitive for me that we should leave it off of this report."

Sanchez, who ultimately voted for Chang-Diaz's amendment along with most other members of the panel, pointed to the limited time remaining before the legislative session ends in January and said he believes "people are expecting us to get things done, not just to use this as a principled document."

"I'm looking at October, I'm looking at the end of the year, I'm looking at the reality of where all of us are at right now, and the task force was put together to come up with some real thoughts of what we could do now," he said.

The two task force members appointed by the House and Senate minority leaders — Hirak Shah from Sen. Bruce Tarr's office and Beverly Stables from Rep. Brad Jones' office — voted against the amendment, as did Saugus Republican Rep. Donald Wong.

Rep. Chynah Tyler abstained, saying she wanted to let lawmakers do their work and could not vote on adding the one piece of legislation "because we're leaving out so many other legislative opportunities."

The three priority action items flagged in the preliminary report focus on bolstering data collection and reporting, developing a plan for equitable distribution of an eventual vaccine, and creating a dedicated reserve account to fund initiatives that mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and address the pandemic's disproportionate impacts on "racially and ethnically diverse populations and other vulnerable populations."

The reserve account could support expanding and extending the state's "Stop the Spread" free testing program, providing isolation space in hotels or other housing, support for local public health, bulk purchasing and distribution of medical supplies and personal protective equipment, public service announcements around testing and treatment, and culturally and linguistically responsive outreach materials, the task force said.

On vaccine distribution, the task force recommended that there be "a culturally and linguistically-centered public awareness campaign, education, and community engagement plan to foster vaccine awareness, promotion and acceptance."

To facilitate access, the group said there should be no out-of-pocket cost-sharing for COVID-19 vaccines.

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