Bloomfield officials discuss inequities in health care

Michellene Davis speaks with Bloomfield Councilwoman Jenny Mundell and Mayor Michael Venezia on July 15 about race and health equity.

BLOOMFIELD, NJ — Bloomfield continued its community conversations on July 15, hosting a Zoom meeting about race and health equity with Michellene Davis, the executive vice president and chief corporate affairs officer for RWJBarnabas Health. Moderated by Mayor Michael Venezia and Councilwoman Jenny Mundell, Davis talked about inequity in the health care system that disproportionately affects black people.

“No conversation about race in our community is complete without also addressing racial disparities in health, and I think to understand why this is, we have to look at what is called in the health care industry the social determinants of health,” Mundell said during the meeting. “We have to return to an inquiry of our systems and institutions that are informed by and created around power structures in society.”

Before taking questions from the residents watching, Davis explained how the COVID-19 pandemic has had a bigger impact on the black community than it has had anywhere else.

“Many of us heard at the onset of COVID that it was the great equalizer. When I first heard that, I understood the good intention of saying that, but I immediately cringed because what I knew was the fact that it was not going to be the great equalizer,” Davis said. “It would mean that anyone from any walk of life could get it; however, what I knew was that it was going to be the great magnifier.”

Black people are more likely to work essential jobs, more likely not to have access to health care and more likely not to have the physical space at home to stay socially distant from their families to protect them, according to Davis.

“Health equity is really the firm belief that everyone deserves the right to grow up healthy and strong. The burden of poor health, though, lays more heavily on communities of color and socially disenfranchised people,” Davis said. “Our potential to be healthy starts with the people, places and circumstances that surround us. More than just place, health is shaped by people’s experiences. The United States is known as a land of great opportunity and prosperity. For decades people around the world have seen the United States as a true model for progress and affluence and as a whole this country has great wealth. The standard of living is incredibly high. Americans have developed social and technological innovations that benefit people across the globe. But if we take a look at a place like New Jersey in and of itself, which you know is the 14th wealthiest state, it makes us pause when you look at the pockets of poverty that are around our state as well.”

Davis explained that a few months ago, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was beginning to test for COVID-19, questions were skewed to be biased against people of color. The organization was asking if people who potentially had the virus had traveled to Europe recently, but not if they worked an essential job.

“Those who work at airports and train stations by and large tend to look like those who are from black and brown communities, yet none of the questioning was really around that,” she said. “When we started to see the spread of COVID and how it began to burn like wildfire across certain communities, it caused us to stop and ask why that is.”

Karen Lore, Bloomfield’s director of Health and Human Services, asked what Davis would suggest to the town to better understand racism while in a public health crisis.

“One of the basic things I recommend to everyone, inside and outside of health care, there are a variety of really easy racial equity assessment tools that you can access online,” Davis said. “Take a look at ensuring that every decision that you make literally goes through a racial equity assessment lens so that you can ensure that you are not further exacerbating systemic inequity.”

Davis also suggested creating committees that include the people who have historically been disenfranchised.

“Include individuals who literally are at the brunt end of receiving whatever it is we’re talking about,” she said. “So if you have those who are living in government-subsidized housing or if you have those who have had issues pertaining to racism, it’s really important that those who have felt the pain have the opportunity to influence the solution to those who have the power. When we cater to the most vulnerable in society, we wind up making it better for everyone else.”