Health data bill would fill in the holes in Maine’s understanding of racial health disparities

All Maine families — Black, brown, and white alike — should be able to live healthy lives and have access to the health care they need, when they need it.  

But are they? In Maine, it’s a question that can be hard to answer. While we know racial disparities in health exist throughout our country, the state currently collects almost no data about health outcomes for different racial or ethnic groups.  

A proposal in the Legislature this year would help provide information about racial disparities in health, giving policymakers the information, they need to ensure equitable health comes for all Mainers.  Lawmakers should pass it.  

The bill — LD 274, sponsored by Rep. Denise Tepler of Topsham — would direct the Maine Health Data Organization to develop a methodology to collect and analyze data on health care disparities for Maine’s racial and ethnic populations.  

MHDO would report back to this committee later this year with their recommendations, setting the committee up to vote on legislation next session to create an annual reporting process on racial disparities in Maine health care. 

The COVID case study 

This past year has laid bare just how stark racial and ethnic disparities in health care can be.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected Black, Latino, and Indigenous people in the United States at much higher rates than white Americans. This is true in Maine, which — at one point — had some of the worst racial disparities in our COVID-19 cases of any state. As of February 11, almost one in ten Black Mainers had tested positive for COVID-19, a rate almost four times higher than the white population.  

Asian and Latino Mainers also had infection rates slightly higher than the white population, according to MECEP analysis of Maine CDC data. 

Yet COVID-19 is the only the latest example of racial disparities in health outcomes. Over centuries, the United States has built up a complex system of polices, practices, and institutions that have created barriers to health for people of colorResearchers have identified several contributors to health disparities: Implicit and unintentional bias by practitioners plays a role, as do social determinants of health such as environment, poverty, and education. 

As a result, Black, indigenous, and people of color in the United States are more likely than whites to suffer heart disease, breast cancer, and maternal mortality.  

More data will help address racial disparities in health 

The Maine Health Data Organization is well-suited analyze is disparities in treatment and patient outcomes.  

This data is sorely needed in Maine. While we have some information available on mortality by race in Maine, we have very little information on treatment and outcomes other than death.  

With a small overall population and a relatively small population of people of color, it’s important for Maine to have more detailed information. We can’t improve health outcomes for people of color if we don’t know how they’re faring in earlier stages of diagnosis and treatment. 

Other states have already taken steps to analyze disparities in health care: Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, Rhode Island, and Utah have been highlighted as leaders in this field and could provide models for Maine to look to. 

Lawmakers should enact LD 274 

We all want Maine to be a place where everyone can live happy, healthy lives. To achieve that, we must address these health care disparities, and that starts with collecting and analyzing data systematically.  

LD 274 is an important step in the process of closing racial disparities in health care in our state. Legislators should enact it.