How the House is addressing health disparities and helping communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on the health disparities that have long impacted Black and Latino communities in the United States—communities already suffering from disproportionately higher rates of kidney disease and its two leading causes, diabetes and high blood pressure. Congress recently passed three laws—all of which originated in the House of Representatives—to help address racial disparities in COVID-19 treatment and infection/mortality rates. The bills contain provisions that would provide states with funding to expand Medicaid and cover COVID-19 tests, reimburse providers for testing, increase support for community health centers, and require the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to provide better data on COVID-19’s impact on communities of color. To address health disparities and limit deaths related to COVID-19, two House committees have held hearings to understand and address the virus’ impact on communities of color.

Families First Coronavirus Response Act

Enacted on March 18, this bill mandates that Medicaid cover COVID-19 testing cost-sharing, which means there would be no copay or coinsurance for the tests. The bill also gives states the option to expand Medicaid coverage for COVID-19 testing to the uninsured, with the federal government paying for 100% of those tests. Additionally, the bill provided $1 billion for provider reimbursements for testing and diagnosis of uninsured individuals.  

Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act

Enacted on March 27, this legislation provides $1.3 billion to community health centers and $100 billion in relief for hospitals and providers experiencing high expenses or revenue losses due to COVID-19. Funds have been distributed to safety net hospitals and Medicaid-dependent providers.

Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act

Enacted on April 24, this legislation required HHS to report the number COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths categorized by race, ethnicity, age, sex, geographic region and other relevant factors. On May 15, HHS and the CDC submitted a document showing that COVID-19 negatively impacts Black and Latino communities more than others. The Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act also included $75 billion to reimburse hospitals and health care providers for coronavirus-related expenses. Providers enrolled in Medicaid would be eligible for funding.

Congressional hearings on health disparities

On May 27, the House Ways and Means Committee held a hearing entitled the Disproportionate Impact on COVID-19 on Communities of Color. The hearing sought out suggested steps our nation can take to address health disparities. Committee Chairman Richard Neal’s opening statement included the following statistics:

  • Less than 22% of U.S. counties are disproportionately Black, but those counties account for 52% of COVID-19 diagnoses and 58% of COVID-19 deaths nationally.
  • In Los Angeles County, the COVID-19 death rate for Pacific Islanders is 12 times higher than it is for whites.
  • The COVID-19 infection rate among the Navajo Nation has now surpassed the state of New York, the original epicenter of the pandemic in the United States, reaching 2,680 cases per 100,000 people.

On June 17, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health held a hearing entitled Health Care Inequality: Confronting Racial and Ethnic Disparities in COVID-19 and the Health Care System. Health Subcommittee Chairwoman Anna Eshoo’s opening statement provided the following statistics:

  • Black Americans are 2.3 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than white Americans.
  • Latino people represent nearly 32% of COVID-19 deaths in Santa Clara County, California, despite making up just 24% of the county’s population.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee has also convened its Racial Disparities Working Group, co-chaired by Reps. Yvette Clarke and Robin Kelly. The goal of the working group is to address disparities in a number of areas that Energy and Commerce has jurisdiction over, including health care. The committee will submit specific strategies and recommendations that Congress can use to tackle racial and ethnic inequality.

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About the Author(s)

Deborah Darcy

Deborah Darcy is director of government relations at the American Kidney Fund.

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