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Lawmakers, group back health equity resource proposal

“It’s really an extremely modest investment for all of the actual dollars that will be saved, let alone the health outcomes and the indirect cost savings that come from that,” says Del. Erek Barron, D-Prince George's. (File Photo)

“It’s really an extremely modest investment for all of the actual dollars that will be saved, let alone the health outcomes and the indirect cost savings that come from that,” says Del. Erek Barron, D-Prince George’s. (File Photo)

Legislation to create permanent Health Equity Resource Communities will be introduced during the 2021 General Assembly session with the support of over 250 groups and organizations in the state, including Johns Hopkins.

Under the proposed bill, areas with poor health outcomes will qualify to be designated as Health Equity Resource Communities with the goal of reducing health inequities by race, ethnicity, disability and geography.

HERCs also would be able to compete for grants, tax incentives and health care provider loan repayment assistance to increase the quality of health service in the area.

Studies show that the previous Health Enterprise Zone program – a $15 million pilot program that ran from 2013 to 2016 — significantly reduced inpatient hospital visits and led to new programs that targeted each community’s specific needs.

Whereas the enterprise zones were funded through the general budget, HERCs would be paid for with a one-cent-per-dollar increase to alcohol sales. This increase would not apply to restaurants and bars for the program’s first two years, in an effort to avoid placing additional strain on those establishments during the pandemic.

In those first two years, it is projected that this tax would raise $14 million per year, according to Maryland Health Care for All’s President Vincent DeMarco, after which it will increase to $22 million per year.

The bill’s lead sponsors, Dels. Jazz Lewis and Erek Barron and Sen. Antonio Hayes, said they recognize that getting the alcohol tax passed will be their biggest challenge. But, Barron pointed out, studies of the original HEZ program indicated that the net cost savings of the initiative outweighed its cost to the state.

“It’s really an extremely modest investment for all of the actual dollars that will be saved, let alone the health outcomes and the indirect cost savings that come from that,” Barron said.

Higher alcohol taxes also have been linked with positive health outcomes, including reductions in underage drinking, binge drinking, driving under the influence and sexually transmitted infections.

Another major difference between the enterprise zones and HERCs is the number of zones. In the pilot program, five HEZs were chosen out of 19 applicants; the new legislation also allows communities to apply for HERC designation, but with no cap on the number of HERCs.

Life expectancy disparities in Baltimore are just one metric that demonstrates the need for this legislation, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott said in a press conference hosted by Maryland Health Care for All Friday. He cited Sandtown and Southern Park Heights, predominantly Black neighborhoods with an average life expectancy of 68, and the predominantly white neighborhoods of Cross Country and Cheswolde, which have an average life expectancy of 87, as examples.

Among the other public officials backing the measure are Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich and Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh.

Scott also said that coronavirus, which has disproportionately affected Black and Latino communities nationwide, has exacerbated the need for this bill.

“Now more than ever we need to invest in solutions that make sure that we just don’t get to the other side of this pandemic only to return to a normal that left far too many of our neighbors without the care they deserve, but that we arrive at a more equitable place,” Scott said.

 


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