Lawmakers pressure Newsom to ‘intensify’ racism as a public health issue

Lawmakers pressure Newsom to ‘intensify’ racism as a public health issue

The $100 million proposal to address the health effects of racism is part of the Democratic-controlled legislature’s broader public health agenda that includes a request for $235 million annually to help rebuild gutted local public health departments, $15 million per year for transgender health care and $10 million to establish an independent “Office of Racial Equity,” which would attempt to identify and address racism in state spending and policies. Lawmakers are lobbying for the money in their negotiations with the governor over the 2021-22 state budget. The legislature must pass a budget bill by June 15 for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Once Newsom receives the bill, he has 12 days to sign it into law. Health care advocacy groups say the investments are critical to address inequality in society and the health care system that has contributed not only to higher rates of covid within disadvantaged communities, but also chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease.

Lawmakers say covid’s disproportionate impact on California’s Black and Latino residents, who experienced higher rates of sickness and death, makes their request even more pressing. State Democratic lawmakers are not waiting for Newsom to make a declaration and are pressuring the first-term Democrat to dedicate $100 million per year from the state budget, beginning July 1, to fund new health equity programs and social justice experiments that might help break down systemic racism. Possibilities for the funding include transforming parking lots in low-income neighborhoods into green spaces and giving community clinics money to distribute fresh fruit and vegetables to their patients.

“Covid uncovered the disparities of the segregated California of the past that still has an effect today, and that we can correct if we focus on equity,” said Assembly member Mike Gipson (D-Carson), who is spearheading the funding push. “We need to build a healthier society that works for everyone.” Yet California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who governs one of the most racially and ethnically diverse populations in the U.S., has not.

Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said George Floyd’s killing in May 2020 motivated state and local lawmakers to look at racism through the lens of public health — which could have helped save lives during the covid pandemic. “We’re at a tipping point,” Benjamin said. “It’s important to first acknowledge that racism is real, but then it requires you to do something about it. We’re now seeing other states beginning to put money and resources behind the words.” Some cities and counties in California have declared racism a public health crisis, including Los Angeles and San Bernardino County. But those declarations would be more meaningful backed by an infusion of state resources, health care advocates say. Newsom pointed to other budget proposals he has made, including $600 economic stimulus payments to households earning less than $75,000, rent and utility bill assistance, and an expansion of the state’s Medicaid program for low-income residents, called Medi-Cal, to unauthorized immigrants age 60 and older.

Newsom hasn’t committed to supporting the funding but said he’d be “very mindful” in negotiations with lawmakers. One proposal Newsom and state lawmakers agree on is funding for a chief equity officer to address racial disparities within state government. “Those who got sick and lost jobs were mostly communities of color, so seeing no new investment from the governor to really tackle racial equity is unconscionable,” said Ronald Coleman, managing director of policy for the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network, which sent Newsom a letter last July asking him to declare racism a public health crisis.

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