Centering the Community’s Voice in State-Led Health Equity Initiatives

November 21, 2023 | Lana McKinney, Jessica Fepelstein

Health professionals seated in a room listening to speaker, woman of color in front row paying close attention.Over the past two years, ASTHO has worked directly with state public health departments and their communities to build capacity for improving health outcomes. These public health departments are building a culture of health equity through policies, practices, and quality improvement measures. This includes the Strategies to Repair Equity and Transform Community Health (STRETCH) Initiative—a 10-state learning community hosted by ASTHO, the CDC Foundation, and the Michigan Public Health Institute.

STRETCH supports states in operationalizing health equity and preventing the constant pressures caused by negative health outcomes on their communities. For example, poverty can create constant pressures just as water pushes against a dam, which can build to the point of breaking and push people into poverty. Additionally, ASTHO supports state and territorial recipients of CDC’s COVID-19 Health Disparities grant to improve the health of high-risk and underserved populations disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Health disparities impact the quality-of-life and financial well-being of communities, with the economic burden of health disparities increasing from $320 billion in 2014 to $451 billion in 2018. This includes associated costs of excess premature deaths, lost labor market productivity, and excess medical care for Americans of color as compared to their white counterparts. Events in recent years, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, revealed the pressures that Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) and other marginalized communities experience because of health disparities.

Aligned with the technical assistance received by public health departments, several states have taken concrete steps to achieve optimal health for all by supporting training of public health staff and increasing engagement of under-represented and underserved communities in the policy process.

Promoting Staff Health Equity Training

Ensuring that public health staff and other leaders are equipped with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to provide culturally competent and equitable care to all patients, regardless of their social background or identity can improve health outcomes. In recent years, states have worked to expand access to cultural competency and humility training for health system workers.

Nevada enacted legislation (AB 267) requiring the state Board of Health to establish the frequency for medical facilities and dependent care facilities to conduct cultural competency training for employees who have direct patient contact. It also (1) requires the Office of Minority Health and Equity and Department of Health and Human Services to establish and maintain a public-facing list of approved courses for cultural competency training, and (2) require nurses, psychologists, marriage and family therapists, counselors, social workers, and behavioral analysts to complete a minimum of three hours of cultural competency training to successfully renew their license.

At least four other states—Illinois (SB 2427), Massachusetts (S 1413), Virginia (SB 1440), and Vermont (H 512)—considered bills expanding access to cultural competency training for healthcare professionals. Vermont’s bill would implement the recommendations of the Health Equity Advisory Commission to provide training and continuing education for healthcare providers to improve cultural competency, cultural humility, and antiracism in Vermont’s healthcare system.

Public health agencies can also promote health equity training by allocating funding and providing training. For example, the Arizona Department of Health Services leveraged funding from CDC’s COVID-19 Health Disparities grant to establish the Advancing Health Equity, Addressing Disparities (AHEAD AZ) program with the University of Arizona Center for Rural Health, which supports the healthcare and public health workforce, including support for Arizona’s 17 Critical Access Hospitals health equity strategic plans, and implementing a COVID-19 testing program that provided testing to communities most in need regardless of socioeconomic or immigration status, including those living in correctional facilities and unhoused people.

Health Equity Commissions

Health equity commissions play a critical role in advancing optimal health for all by bringing together experts, stakeholders, and policymakers to draw on evidence-based approaches that address the root causes of health disparities and to develop strategies to prevent them. At least two states proposed legislation related to health equity commissions in 2023. Colorado passed a law (SB 23-151) extending its Health Equity Commission through 2029. New Jersey is considering S 3136, which would establish and require a Commission on Health Equity to, among other things, recommend implicit bias training requirements for healthcare providers.

Empowering Community Members to Engage in the Policy Process

Hearing directly from community members, particularly those with lived experience, provides health agencies with unique insights into the community’s needs and daily life, and helps gain support from those most affected by the policy. There can be several barriers to holistic community engagement, particularly for community members who have fewer resources. Policymakers can take steps to lower these barriers by providing access to childcare, supporting transportation costs to a meeting, and/or compensating community members for their time and effort supporting the policy development process.

In 2022, Washington enacted SB 5793 to compensate community members with lived experience for their time and expertise when serving on boards, commissions, councils, committees and other similar policymaking groups. The law directed the state’s Office of Equity to develop equity-driven compensation guidelines for all state agencies, which Washington’s Department of Health used to create and implement its Community Compensation Guidelines. These compensation guidelines outline how and when community members can be paid for their time and expenses when engaging in the policy process. Such methods are particularly valuable because the communities facing the most inequity are also the ones most systemically marginalized.

Similarly, in 2023 Oregon’s legislature considered SB 694 to create a Task Force and Work Group Stipend Fund. The fund would provide for providing members who do not otherwise receive compensation for their participation to be compensated for their time and travel for task force or workgroup related work.

ASTHO will continue to monitor policy developments supporting health equity programs and initiatives, providing relevant updates.

Special thanks to Maggie Davis, JD, ASTHO’s director of state health policy, for her contributions to this blog.

Additional Resources to Help Public Health Leaders Increase Community Engagement