State Senate chambers (CTNewsJunkie File Photo)

The state Senate voted Tuesday to declare racism a public health crisis in Connecticut as part of a wide-ranging bill aimed at equalizing access to health care.

The bill, which passed on a bipartisan 30 to 5 vote after more than three hours of debate, included a provision which declares racism a public health crisis and creates a commission on racial equity in health. The task force will study the impact of racism on the health outcomes of vulnerable populations and make recommendations to reduce that impact.

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“There’s no doubt that inequities exist in our health care system,” Sen. Mary Daugherty Abrams, co-chairwoman of the Public Health Committee, said. “Today we get to decide: will we perpetuate the status quo or will we move forward towards health equity for all?” 

Sen. Saud Anwar, a South Windsor and pulmonologist, said the bill took a first step towards addressing the problem.

“The way I look at it is if you do not diagnose a problem, you cannot solve a problem,” Anwar said. “This actually clearly diagnoses the problem and once we are able to diagnose it, the rest of the part of the bill actually starts to look at how are we going to solve this crisis?”

The bill calls for studies and reporting on a large scope of health and mental health issues. Among the study panels the bill would create are groups looking into gun violence prevention, breast cancer screening, and the recruitment and retention of health care workers of color. 

It would require the Public Health Department to study Connecticut’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and submit a report to the legislature. The Mental Health and Addiction Services Department would be required to develop a “toolkit” to help employers address the mental health needs of its employees. 

Another section of the bill would require hospitals to conduct “implicit bias” training to avoid unequal treatment of patients based on characteristics like their race, age, disability, gender identity, or sexual orientation. 

Sen. Marilyn Moore, D-Trumbull, said she was proud to have worked on the bill. 

“This past year illuminated inequities within our health systems and I intentionally used the word illuminate because they’ve always been there. But perhaps they existed because they were acceptable practices. But COVID-19 was the equalizer. When we address these inequities, we make the systems better for all,” Moore said. 

Throughout several hours of debate, several Republican senators said that elements seemed to set arbitrary goal posts. They questioned if some of the many provisions had been vetted through public hearings. Sen. Dan Champagne, R-Vernon, said it was inappropriate for the Public Health Department to be the agency studying Connecticut’s response to the COVID pandemic because it largely coordinated that response. 

“Nobody that had a part in getting us through this pandemic should be involved in the investigation. It should be an independent– somebody outside of it so we can get a true picture of what happened,” Champagne said.

However several Republicans joined all Democrats in supporting the bill. Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, said the bill was not perfect, but moved the state in the right direction. 

“If this helps us unravel that onion, layers by layers of the problem that we have so we can get to the core, that we can eliminate racism in this country and we can provide equality here in our state and around our nation, then madam president, I submit that this bill is a good first step,” Formica said.