By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer

Chet Hewitt, CEO of Sierra Health Foundation, right, is shown with Wendy Petko in 2015 as co-chairs of the steering committee to reduce African American child deaths in Sacramento County. OBSERVER file photo

When you actually listen to Black folks when they tell you what their needs and concerns are, beautiful things can happen.

HealthNet, a leading provider of health plans for people with Medi-Cal and Medicare, recently released a report on reducing health disparities for people of color. The report highlights how a focus on Black health is yielding positive results.

“Today, two-thirds of Health Net’s members are Medi-Cal enrollees, a patient population with historically high rates of health disparities,” said Brian Ternan, President and CEO of Health Net and California Health and Wellness. Ternan says in the last four years, they’ve invested $93 million to support over 500 community-based initiatives. 

“These investments were guided by our work with local partners who’ve directed the money where it’s needed the most. In this way, we work to fill local needs and address the priorities of the underserved communities who need the most support.”

Key findings from the report included a need to implement multi-faceted interventions, recognition that community-based resources drive the greatest impact and an understanding that cultural competency is key.

While these aren’t new concepts, Dr. Pooja Mittal, who was appointed to lead the network’s Health Equity team in July, says there’s a renewed focus on root causes of inequity.

The entire healthcare system, Dr. Mittal says, has seen a “really significant shift” over the last five years, but the death of George Floyd in 2020 amplified the need. Floyd, a Black man, was killed by a White Minneapolis-area police officer, Derek Chauvin who pinned him down to the ground with a knee to the neck for nine minutes. Floyd tried to tell Chauvin that he couldn’t breathe, but the officer refused to let up.

“We all recognize the part that systems and structural and systemic racism play in the outcomes that we see. There was a real need to address how we can start to change some of those structures and those systems as an entire organization and to really take that work and shift it into not only being organization wide and applying some of those same principles, internally as members of this company, but also system wide meaning on a regional level.”

The report pointed out recent successes in addressing disparities, particularly in the area of Black maternal and infant health. 

“We really need to be able to close those gaps, so we’ve really been taking a very creative approach to how we can best support not only our members, but entire communities to shift outcomes,” Dr. Mittal said. “You can see in the report some of the really great work that we’ve done, but we know it’s only the beginning and we’re excited to continue to build on it and grow.”

She points to a doula program in Los Angeles that has resulted in a 50% decrease in Cesarean sections and better birth outcomes for Black mothers there. The program is currently on-hold pending legislation, Dr. Mittal shared, but discussions are being had about expanding it into other parts of the state.

Sacramento County’s Black Child Legacy Campaign was also among the positives mentioned in the HealthNet report.

“There are many challenges that the Black community has, but when we talk about children, it is not all that difficult to get people together, to really struggle to figure out what can be done,” said Sierra Health Foundation President and CEO Chet Hewitt.

“And even when we’re battling some pretty pernicious and long-term, social and economic forces, when we see the data, which was not a surprise to many people, folks said, ‘What are we going to do about it?,’” Hewitt continued. 

The attention has paid off, he says.

“We had a 25% drop in Black child deaths between 2014 and 2017, which are the two years where we have the best data. We went for 20 months without a single Black child (dying), without a single homicide for anyone under the age of 18, for 28 months, within the city of Sacramento and that was the first time anyone’s ever seen that happen,” Hewitt said.

“Advancing health equity in our communities is critically important,” said Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna, who called for the Blue Ribbon Commission on Black Child Deaths that evolved into the Black Child Legacy Campaign.

 “With the help of Health Net and other community stakeholders, we will continue addressing social determinants of health that disproportionately affect people of color to ensure our health care systems rightfully serve everyone,” Serna said.

It’s a huge undertaking, Dr. Mittal says, but one well worth the effort.

“We have the moral obligation to do it and I think we can get people behind it. Where we see optimism is from the people that we’re serving, because I hope that they see that we are committed to shifting that conversation and shifting that work, to better address those needs.” 

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