Health Inequities Dog Austin

Racial disparities are glaring

Today, a partnership between the City of Austin, Travis County, and Central Health unveiled Healthy ATC, a web portal that “work[s] together to track disparities and create health equity in our community.” The portal comes at an auspicious time, as City Council begins discussing the FY 2016 budget at tomorrow’s meeting.

Mama Sana members campaigned for better care for pregnant people in jail earlier this year. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

The portal’s data reinforces the implicit message of the data presented by ATC Health and Human Services Director Shannon Jones at the Aug. 3 meeting of the city’s Health and Human Services Committee: The overall disparity in health outcomes between black ATC residents and those of other races is shameful. This is not to say that by every measure African-Americans have worse outcomes than everyone else, but that in general the divide is startling. Black mothers are close to twice as likely to give birth to low-weight babies as other women. African-Americans have a death rate of 206.7 per 100,000 people, compared to 151.8 for the population as a whole, despite the fact that the difference in incidences of cancer is much narrower (439.5 for blacks compared to 414.9 overall). Blacks are also more likely to die of heart disease, have preterm births, suffer from infant mortality, and contract HIV and other STDs.

Jones’ presentation was part of the outcome of a resolution passed by Council earlier this year to “address equity issues and develop an equity tool to be used during the budget process.” The driving force behind the resolution was a coalition of groups including Mama Sana/Vibrant Woman, Allgo, and the Alliance for African American Health in Central Texas.

At the Aug. 3 meeting, representatives from those groups told the committee what they believe needs to happen to address these inequities. They asked that $1.05 million be allocated toward funding “community-based interventions” that are “culturally specific, nontraditional, innovative,” and focus “on individuals/groups disproportionately impacted (people of color, elderly, immigrants, LGBT, and youth).” A variety of women gave testimony about why they felt the funding was important. Many, including acupuncturist Tonya Lyles and Fund Texas Choice founder Lenzi Scheible, emphasized how important it is for people to feel like they can trust their health care providers. Scheible spoke movingly of how she struggled to feel safe discussing her postpartum depression with her midwife. Lyles told the Chronicle that in her own practice, it can take up to two hours for her to understand a client’s needs, and that she’s not sure Austin’s minority patients are receiving necessary education about simple preventive care.

While committee members Ora Houston, Delia Garza, and Kathie Tovo seemed amenable to bringing the question of funding before Council, Ellen Troxclair was unsurprisingly obstinate in her opposition to something that could be interpreted as spending, despite Garza pointing out that, as a former firefighter, she had personally witnessed how costly lack of prevention could be. Despite Troxclair’s repeated protestations, the motion passed 3-1.

Notably, the committee members avoided bringing up the possibility that racism could be involved in causing the disparities. Speaking with the Chronicle after the meeting, Mama Sana’s Kellee Coleman, while pleased the motion had passed, expressed dismay at the unwillingness to engage the issue directly. “If we can’t have a very direct conversation about racism and how it functions, we will continue to see the same inequities perpetuated,” she said.

Although the full Council may not have the stomach to have a frank discussion about race, Item 51 on tomorrow’s budget is approval of the HHS Committee’s recommendation to “identify funding for public health programs aimed at decreasing health inequities,” which means the coalition and its supporters will be back at City Hall at 6:30pm tomorrow, asking Council to recognize the obvious, and do something about it.

Visit Stand for Health Equity at City of Austin Budget Hearing on Facebook for more information about tomorrow's gathering at City Hall.

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