Commentary: How Texans suffer without office of minority health

During the past legislative session, Texas lawmakers canceled funding for the Office of Minority Health Statistics and Engagement (OMHSE) beyond Sept. 1, 2018. In effect, this means Texas could soon become the first state in the nation without an office of minority health. This is a bad decision by our lawmakers because Texas institutions continue to operate inequitably.

It may seem that inequity only impacts people of color, but it is important to remember that what affects one part of our state has an effect over all of us. Legislators need to ensure all Texans have access to programs and services that strengthen opportunity and should support initiatives that get people to work together to solve social problems.

The Legislature’s commitment toward understanding the systemic drivers of disparities in state institutions was historic and signified a promise to all Texans to provide equitable and, ultimately, better services. Cutting this program without a replacement and leaving Texas without an office of minority health amounts to a broken promise.

POLITIFACT: Texas ‘leading’ the nation in maternal mortality.

The OMHSE came to be in 2005 after it was shown that the child welfare crisis in Texas hit children and families of color the hardest. The program provided cultural competency training and consultative services to different state and private institutions, and it developed partnerships with community groups across Texas.

Texas’ maternity mortality rate is the highest not just in the nation, but in the developed world, and black women in Texas bear the greatest risk for maternal death. Though just 11.4 percent of births in Texas are to black mothers, they account for nearly 30 percent of all maternal deaths. In an effort to reduce the incidence of pregnancy-related deaths, the Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Task Force recommended the state take steps toward increasing provider and community awareness of health inequities. They also recommended increasing provider education and implementing programs that increase the ability of women to self-advocate.

Essentially, the task force outlined that programs like the soon-to-be-unfunded OMHSE are key to combating the pervasive disparities inherent in Texas health systems.

When asked why funding for the program was zeroed out, Senate Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson said in the spring of 2016 that she was unconvinced the program needed 26 staff members. The House Appropriations Committee seemed to disagree, leaving the program’s budget intact through the next legislative session in 2019. Along the road toward a unified budget, a proverbial “splitting of the baby” took place: The OMHSE was able to keep its full budget for one last year. The compromise also included a name change for the program, sanitizing it of the implication that state institutions don’t serve all Texans equitably, and hinting at the decision-making process behind the program’s impending defunding.

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Until recently, Texas was reactionary on issues such as maternal mortality, giving already serious problems the opportunity to worsen. When Texas invests in innovative programs like the OMHSE, which seeks to identify the root of the problem and get ahead of it, the state saves money.

Today, inequity exists in nearly every state institution. Black students in Texas are 31 percent more likely to receive school discretionary discipline action, compared with white and Latino students. Youths of color are further overrepresented in school campus citations, arrests, juvenile probation referrals and use-of-force incidents compared with their peers. And still, other intuitive and predictable sorts of inequities plague Texas’ criminal justice and child welfare systems.

The Office of Minority Health Statistics and Engagement is still needed in Texas. If the state doesn’t invest in proactive programs such as the OMHSE now, Texans will bear the cost later. For some the burden will be financial, but others — Texas mothers, students and families moving through the child welfare system —will experience the weight of lawmakers’ decision through dimmer futures and shorter lives.

Lluveras is a postdoctoral fellow in the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis at the University of Texas.

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