Congress works to increase investment in health disparity research; problem amplified by COVID

Updated: Mar. 18, 2021 at 6:14 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Efforts on Capitol Hill aim to help research universities like Xavier University of Louisiana do more work related to health disparities and that could help bridge the great health divide plaguing many areas.

The coronavirus pandemic peeled the layers off a serious problem that has persisted for years: inadequate access to healthcare by minorities.

Dr. Reynold Verret is President of Xavier University of Louisiana.

“The barriers to accessing healthcare are not purely technical or medical, some of them are sociological,” said Verret.

Probing health disparities is nothing new for Xavier which is led by Verret who has a doctorate from MIT in biochemistry.

“We’re also very much involved in some of the work on health disparities, even recently through the pandemic but we’ve been doing this for many years, so we’ve been tracking that legislation and how it would support the efforts,” he said.

Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican, won unanimous Senate support for a bill he co-sponsored with a Democratic colleague. It is called the John Lewis National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities Research Endowment Revitalization Act.

“It was named to honor the late Congressman John Lewis and the bill increases investments into schools conducting critical research into minority health disparities,” said Cassidy.

He says the research will aid in working on solutions designed to improve health outcomes in underserved communities.

“Xavier University is one example doing great research. This legislation supports their efforts. Louisiana has a heck of a lot of healthcare disparities,” said Cassidy.

Dr. Verret is encouraged by the increased attention on health disparities since the pandemic began.

“I am encouraged and I am hopeful that, that attention will mean greater benefits and not just for healthcare because the factors that affect health disparities, access to quality nutrition, access to quality education, all those factors impinge on health disparity,” he said.

Verret says research on health disparities does not just benefit minorities, but society-at-large.

“If one group is not healthy, health is not addressed everyone else will suffer as well,” he said. “In the COVID epidemic, as we would have with other major medical issues, we realize that healthcare of one sector of the society impinges the healthcare of everyone else, especially when you have an infectious agent.”

But Verret is not convinced hesitancy by some in minority communities is steeped in past research missteps.

“I think many people are not focused on the Tuskegee study, the trust issues are much more close to home, not 50, 60 years ago,” said Verret.

Still, he agrees more work must be done to build trust.

“The examples of many members of my community, the immediate community being involved and showing why they are taking the vaccine and arguing for it,” said Verret. “I think we’re seeing trust grow for the vaccine, but the larger issue of trust is saying that for other healthcare issues we need to have actually adequate representation among our healthcare professionals.”

Cassidy says other goals include increasing the diversity and strength of the scientific workforce and enhancing recruitment and retention of individuals from health disparity populations that are underrepresented in the scientific workforce.

A companion bill is working its way through the U.S. House of Representatives.

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