Kansas racial equity panel calls attention to early childhood, maternal health disparities

By: - July 26, 2021 9:00 am

The Commission on Racial Equity and Justice, chaired by Tiffany Anderson, left, and Shannon Portillo, submitted a report his month containing 51 recommendations to Gov. Laura Kelly, right. The focus was on the social determinants of health. (Submitted to Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — A Kansas racial equity panel report has pinpointed maternal and early childhood health, vaccine equity and Medicaid expansion among areas that could improve racial inequities in health care.

Among the specific recommendations in the 2021 interim report from Gov. Laura Kelly’s Commission on Racial Equity and Justice is an extension of Medicaid coverage for mothers through 12 months. Currently, coverage for new mothers is only 60 days.

The task force also highlighted the ways grant funds could be used to support community resources for early childhood health. David Jordan, chairman of the commission subcommittee on health care and CEO of the United Methodist Health Ministry Fund, said panelists identified health issues early in life as a top priority for review.

“Investing in maternal and child health is not just the way to improve the health of Kansans and reduce health inequities, but it’s also a way to improve educational outcomes long term and it’s an economic development in some ways,” Jordan said. “So, it’s really critical that if we’re going to make a difference that we invest early.”

The commission report features 51 recommendations on ways state agencies, the Legislature and local governments can improve racial disparities surrounding health care economics and education. The commission report centers around the social determinants of health — the social and economic factors impacting group differences in health — and their role in racial injustice in Kansas.

Topics covered include teacher diversity, tax policy and early childhood education, in addition to health care-related issues.

Beyond maternal and child health, the commission pushed timely pandemic recommendations to bridge divides in COVID-19 vaccination rates. Jordan said additional data should also be a focus for Kansas.

“Both in vaccine equity and maternal and child health is just the need for the state to continue investing in good data so that we understand, for instance, who’s getting access to vaccines and we’re able to disaggregate that data based on race and ethnicity,” Jordan said.

Kelly established the commission in June 2020 following the murder of George Floyd and demands for solutions to racial inequalities in Kansas. The commission began work last year focusing on law enforcement and policing, releasing a report in December 2020 with more than 60 recommendations for all levels of government.

Since the first report, the commission split into three subcommittees — health care, education and economics — to establish a broader focus for the second year of work. Each group has met as frequently as once per month with the larger commission meeting monthly to come to a consensus on a second report to the governor.

“This commission has again developed a thoughtful and well-researched report, full of recommendations that the state and local governments can take up and implement both short-term and long-term,” Kelly said. “My administration remains committed to advancing equity and justice for all Kansans. By working together to pursue these policies, we can improve the health of all Kansas communities.”

While subcommittees overlapped in many areas, each had a unique set of recommendations. In the economic subcommittee, overseen by commission co-chairwoman Shannon Portillo, the focus was cast on tax policy and the use of COVID-19 federal funding to address racial disparities.

One recommendation was that lawmakers explore ways to use federal funds to reduce administrative burdens for utility and housing assistance, as well as using funds for wage assistance programs.

“We know that we have quite a bit of federal relief coming down to the state through the American Rescue Plan Act, so we had some specific recommendations with how the state and local governments should consider using those funds,” Portillo said. “And then also decision making in those funds and making sure that we’re hearing from all constituents when it comes to those funds.”

Education recommendations in the report included more thorough diversity training for teachers across the state and doing away with racist or controversial mascots.

Future courses of study include housing issues, unfair lending policies, broadband and student loans. Tiffany Anderson, commission co-chairwoman and Topeka Public Schools Superintendent, said community voices would also drive future work.

“We want to give (Kansans) an opportunity to have a voice into this space,” Anderson said. “So in addition to the speakers that we have, the community is really helping drive this across the state of Kansas.”

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Noah Taborda
Noah Taborda

Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government and producing an episode of the podcast Show Me The State while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Noah then made a short move to Kansas City, Missouri, to work at KCUR as an intern on the talk show Central Standard and then in the newsroom, reporting on daily news and feature stories.