When COVID-19 hit Maine early last year, it didn’t hit everyone the same — by June, Black residents represented 27% of all cases while making up just 1.4% of the general population, the biggest racial disparity in the country. Latino and Indigenous residents were disproportionately hurt, too.

But that was only a more dramatic and visible example of the disparities that exist in health care at all times, not just during a global pandemic. Factors specific to certain groups, often based in discrimination and bias, lead to problems with access and substandard care — for not only Mainers of color, but women, LGBTQ residents, rural Mainers and those with disabilities.

That’s why we support the new Office of Population Health Equity, established recently by the Mills administration within the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

The office’s job will be to monitor health inequities in the state and intervene to ensure all Mainers have access to the care they need. A similar office, under different names, existed within state government for years before then-Gov. Paul LePage dissolved it in 2015.

It would be ridiculous to think such a change by itself could solve the systemic racism and bias that limits health care access. But the office should play an important role in that effort.

The office’s very existence is a much-needed acknowledgement that the disparities are real and must be addressed in order for all Mainers to have the opportunity to improve their well-being and live healthy lives.

The problems are not hard to find if you look. The disparities in health for Black Mainers did not begin with COVID; they have existed for years, driven by bias and lack of economic opportunity. Black women in Maine are found to have much less access to prenatal care and higher rates of infant mortality. Across the U.S., minorities face higher rates of chronic disease and premature death.

Transgender and other LGBTQ residents face similar barriers. In a large state with little public transit, and a lot of infrastructure unfriendly to their needs, Mainers with disabilities can struggle to get around.

The loss of hospitals, and maternity clinics specifically, in rural parts of the state mean residents there are at a disadvantage compared to their urban counterparts, with women traveling hours to deliver a baby.

The fact is, the health care system was built, intentionally or not, by the majority for the majority; it just doesn’t account for everyone. Great organizations have come in to fill the cracks, to advocate and care for the populations that have to struggle to get what comes easily to others.

But what we are doing now clearly is not enough. Maine has to look harder at the places where access to care and positive health outcomes depends on where you were born or how you look.

As long as those disparities exist, Mainers won’t be as healthy as they can be — and neither will Maine.

 


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