On a bipartisan vote Tuesday, the House gave final passage to legislation declaring racism a public health crisis in Connecticut and creating commissions charged with finding paths to more equitable health care outcomes.
The 114 to 33 vote in the House follows a similarly bipartisan effort two weeks ago in the Senate. The bill, called SB 1, was the upper chamber’s top priority this year. Among its many provisions is a section which labels racism as a health care crisis and establishes a commission to study its effect on vulnerable populations and make recommendations to reduce that impact.
Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, a Westport Democrat who is co-chairman of the Public Health Committee, said the commission was more than a symbolic effort and would examine the ways in which racism, “whether overt or insidious,” impacts health care.
“We know there have been studies, for example, that indicate that people of color are treated differently by medical professionals, that they sometimes are given different prognosis, different suggestions for health care therapy and remediation and they often have different outcomes and not as good,” Steinberg said.
The bill touches on a wide range of issues not limited to the impact of racism. It creates new studies and reporting requirements for health and mental health issues including gun violence prevention, breast cancer screening, and the recruitment and retention of health care workers of color.
One section requires the Public Health Department to report to the legislature on the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Another provision requires the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services to develop tools to help employers meet the mental health needs of employees.
Meanwhile, hospitals will be required to train employees to recognize “implicit bias” to ensure that all patients receive equal treatment regardless of their race, age, disability, gender identity, or sexual orientation.
The provisions related to racism were the focus throughout most of the bill’s several-hour floor debate. Some opponents argued it sent a too-broad message and essentially labeled the state as racist. Rep. Harry Arora, a Greenwich Republican who immigrated to the state from India, said he was no stranger to discrimination. But he said the bill upset him.
“I will tell you, our institutions have their faults but nothing to what this bill says. Nothing,” Arora said. “There are bad apples out there, bad people out there. There are some bad laws out there. There’s some remnants. There’s something that needs to be written, perhaps. But the core is good. I’m angry when I look at this bill.”
Rep. Geraldo Reyes, D-Waterbury, said his family’s experience was different. Reyes said racism was the norm for him growing up and arguments that it was not prevalent in Connecticut were “missing the boat completely.”
“To be in this chamber and to say that racism doesn’t exist or that racism isn’t real? You didn’t walk in the Reyes family shoes. You didn’t walk in the shoes of people that look like me, who were dirt-poor in the city of Waterbury when we were made to feel that we were less-than,” he said.
Rep. Brandon McGee, D-Hartford, said “these types of conversations” were required to correct difficult and systemic problems. He said the conversations were necessary, even if they could be “extremely uncomfortable and oftentimes come with a lot of baggage.”
“Racism has been a public health crisis since the founding of this country. Not just last week. And not just throughout the summer of 2020,” McGee said.
The bill will now head to Gov. Ned Lamont for his signature.