It’s become accepted wisdom at this point: The coronavirus is not a color-blind adversary. Ten months into the pandemic, it bears repeating: This pandemic is unequivocally hitting communities of color the hardest.
The data that we have clearly shows that vulnerable communities in Texas, especially Black and Latino communities — who already face disproportionate instances of diabetes, kidney disease and other chronic illnesses — are more likely to experience negative outcomes if infected by the virus.
Before its quiet shuttering due to elimination of funding, the state’s Office of Minority Health Statistics and Engagement (previously known as the Center for the Elimination of Disproportionality and Disparities) was doing revolutionary work interrogating racial disparities in health and human services. The office did more than just report instances of disproportionalities — it was accountable for working with agencies and communities where disparities existed and devising strategies that were community-driven and that prioritized equity.
The work of this important office highlighted barriers to opportunities and provided policy recommendations for Texas systems of health and human services, including mental health, education, juvenile justice, child welfare and employment for minorities and people with disabilities.
Texas was well served by such an office. Both the evidence and common sense tell us that more complete and accurate data on race and ethnicity can improve the ability of public health systems to eliminate health disparities — and improve well-being for all Texans.
Improved data and increased technical assistance would increase access to health services where it is desperately lacking — including mental health. Funding to re-establish an office at the Health and Human Services Commission to focus on health equity and the removal of disparities should be a priority for our state and our lawmakers.
Without such an office, accountability is absent.
The elimination of the office has left a hole in the system. No agency or commission is accountable for addressing racial disparities in our health and human services system. Although disparities exist across state agencies, disparities in health and human services are often the most damaging and penetrate broadly into other systems.
All states vary in how they report COVID-19 cases, but Texas is one of the worst, reporting race and ethnicity data for a mere 3% of its COVID-19 cases. Some have suggested that if the Office of Minority Health Statistics and Engagement still existed, these racial disparities could have been better investigated and reported or perhaps even prevented.
To be sure, the 2021 legislative session will be a challenging one. Lawmakers are tasked with writing a budget amid a COVID-driven economic recession that has dragged on for a year. Tough choices will need to be made, and there will be sincere arguments about what we can and can’t afford.
Still, in recent months there has been a renewed push to revive the office whose aim is to eliminate disparities and help with fair distribution of resources. Policymakers should see the wisdom in doing so. The ability to collect and analyze data to ensure that our state is ready to respond to the disparate needs of all Texans is not trivial or an extravagance. Health equity isn’t a matter of charity. It is a bargain we strike with ourselves for the future well-being of our state. This needed bargain begins with data and the ability to put it to good use. It continues with the development of meaningful strategies to correct the glaring wrongs of our current systems.
Our Legislature has made recent key investments such as redesigning and reinvigorating our state hospital system, creating the Judicial Commission on Mental Health, and developing the Texas Child Mental Health Care Consortium. For these investments to function effectively now and in the future, we need an office of health equity to collect and analyze data from across our great state for the health of us all.
Octavio N. Martinez, Jr. is the executive director of the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Austin American-Statesman and the San Antonio Express News.