Congressional briefing wrap-up: COVID-19, Health Disparities and the Social Determinants of Health

As part of the American Kidney Fund’s (AKF) Kidney Action Week earlier this month, our government relations team hosted a virtual Congressional briefing with a panel of national experts. They discussed factors that have led to a disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color—the same communities also disproportionately impacted by kidney failure. The briefing, COVID-19, Health Disparities and the Social Determinants of Health, informed attendees about the serious problems of health disparities and social determinants of health affecting the health outcomes in minority communities.

Several themes emerged across the panelists’ presentations that paint an overall picture of the landscape of health disparities in America. A wide variety of factors work together to create the disproportionate impact of kidney disease, COVID-19 and other health conditions on underserved communities of color:

  • Lack of access to food, transportation and health care, including being uninsured or underinsured
  • A large percentage of “essential” front-line workers who have jobs interacting with the public that cannot be performed via telework
  • Multi-generational homes where, in the case of COVID-19, self-isolation is not usually possible to prevent transmission
  • Food insecurity and lack of access to healthy food, leading to higher incidences of comorbidities like high blood pressure and diabetes, the leading causes of kidney disease
  • The “digital divide” making it difficult for people to access telehealth services and/or telework and engage in distance learning
  • Lack of health care providers from minority and underserved communities
  • Environmental factors, such as air quality and pollution, that lead to greater instances of cardiovascular diseases, asthma and other conditions that can cause poor health outcomes

The Congressional briefing opened with remarks from LaVarne A. Burton, AKF’s president and CEO, and was moderated by former Congresswoman Donna M. Christensen, M.D. (D-VI), who serves on AKF’s board of trustees. Congresswoman Nannette Diaz Barragán (D-CA-44) spoke about her bill, H.R. 6561, Improving Social Determinants of Health Act of 2020, which would establish a CDC program to consider social determinants of health (SDOH) in grants and activities, reward grants to organizations and health agencies addressing SDOH, and collect and analyze data with regards to SDOH.

Eduardo Sanchez, M.D., M.P.H., FAAFP, chief medical officer for prevention at the American Heart Association, highlighted ways to lessen the impact of SDOH on chronic diseases. Dr. Sanchez recommended four ways to address health disparities:

  1. Provide adequate resources for public health at the local, state and federal levels
  2. Remove barriers to accessing care by making sure everyone has health insurance
  3. Expand telehealth systems and broadband access for underserved communities
  4. Support legislation that addresses health disparities and provide adequate funding for programs

Oliver Brooks, M.D., immediate past president of the National Medical Association (NMA) and chief medical officer of Watts Healthcare, discussed the impact of SDOH in the Black community. Moving forward, Dr. Brooks recommended some ways to address health disparities:

  1. Address SDOH so we can begin to tackle the unequal impact of diseases on communities of color
  2. Establish a universal health care system
  3. Provide adequate funding for small businesses, especially businesses owned by people of color
  4. Strengthen partnerships between organizations like NMA and AKF
  5. Recruit more Black health care professionals
  6. Support legislation to address important SDOH issues

Sindy Benavides, CEO of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), spoke about the impact of kidney failure and COVID-19 on the Latino community, highlighting the failure to capture accurate health data in many underserved communities—data that would be used to drive policy decisions. She noted that the Latino community is significantly impacted by a lack of available Spanish-language health information about the coronavirus, and stressed the need for funding translation services for educational health materials. She called on allies to work with the Latino community to discover solutions together.

The final speaker was Patrick Gee, a kidney transplant recipient and AKF Ambassador, who shared his personal experience with both kidney disease and COVID-19. Mr. Gee spoke about the lack of educational information he received on how to keep his kidneys healthy and his comorbidities after his kidney failure diagnosis and stressed the importance of education and prevention in communities of color. Mr. Gee then shared his experience of testing positive for COVID-19 and going through the illness as an immunocompromised transplant patient.

As we continue to work to address the health disparities and SDOH that have devastated communities of color, AKF is grateful to our panel for sharing their expertise with our briefing audience on Capitol Hill and across the country.

Missed the live event? You can view a recording of the briefing here.

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About the Author

Kate Tremont

Kate Tremont is associate director of government affairs at the American Kidney Fund.

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