A national focus on health equity: important updates for reporters

About Melba Newsome

Melba Newsome is AHCJ's core topic leader for health equity and a veteran freelance journalist with more than 20 years’ experience. Her health and science features have appeared in Health Affairs, Oprah, Prevention, Scientific American, Chemical & Engineering News and North Carolina Health News.

Photo by IRRI Photos via Flickr

Social determinants are well-known factors in individual health outcomes, but the coronavirus pandemic appears to have created urgency in the White House and Congress to highlight and address health equity.

Shortly after being sworn in, President Joe Biden announced a new presidential-appointed position, the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, and a National Climate Task Force. In one of his first executive orders, Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, Biden said he would elevate climate change and underscore the administration’s commitment to address it.

On August 30, 2021, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) created the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity (OCCHE). As the first office of its kind at the national level to address climate change and health equity, OCCHE’s mission is to protect the vulnerable communities who disproportionately bear the brunt of pollution and climate-driven disasters like drought and wildfires at the expense of public health.

“We’ve always known that health is at the center of climate change, and now we’re going to double-down on a necessity: fighting climate change in order to help protect public health in our communities,” said HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra.

Climate change exacerbates existing health and social inequities by worsening environmental conditions associated with chronic illness and injury, making it an issue of health equity. The risks and negative impacts of climate change are not equally or fairly distributed. Low-income neighborhoods, communities of color, including native and tribal, the very young and very old, and those with chronic illnesses bear an unfair burden of these health harms.

To tackle these inequities, OCCHE is prioritizing:

  • Identifying communities with disproportionate exposures to climate hazards
  • Addressing health disparities exacerbated by climate impacts
  • Aiding regulatory efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution.

Medical experts have urged the government to take climate-related health threats more seriously. Now, National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy says her office will press doctors to talk to their patients how to protect themselves from pollution, heat waves, wildfire smoke, etc.

“Some of the same groups disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 will be the same groups struggling the most with the effects of climate change on our health,” said HHS Assistant Secretary for Health Rachel L. Levine, M.D. “We will use the lessons learned from COVID-19 to address these disparities, prioritizing and protecting the nation’s health.”

At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, a bipartisan group of House members launched the Congressional Social Determinants of Health Caucus to address social determinants of health. Now, that responsibility is divided among many committees and delivered across multiple agencies. The caucus seeks to bring those responsibilities under one umbrella.

Co-chaired by Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., Reps. Tom Cole, R-Okla., G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., and Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., the 20-member caucus includes representatives who are concerned about improving health outcomes and maximizing existing and future federal investments in health, food, housing, transportation and other important drivers of health.

Like OCCHE, the caucus will spotlight the disparate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on certain populations and communities. It will also convene thought leaders to educate members on the evidence around social determinants and gather data on the best way to facilitate effective social determinant interventions, and how Congress can take action to advance this work.

Reps. Bustos and Cole co-sponsored the Determinants Accelerator Act (H.R. 2503) that would provide planning grants and technical assistance to help states and communities address the social determinants of health for high-need Medicaid patients.

The caucus and OCCHE will be great resources for reporters covering health and health equity, particularly climate and environmental-related issues.

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