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USF professor explains how Florida statute could improve health equity in Tampa Bay

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Dr. Kyaien Conner, associate professor of mental health law and policy at the University of South Florida, co-authored HB-183. Photo: USF.

Governor Ron DeSantis signed HB-183 into law on June 17, a bill designed to improve health equity by requiring better record keeping and communication between state and local health departments.

Florida’s legislature passed the bill unanimously during its 2021 session.

Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, tapped Dr. Kyaien Conner, an associate professor of mental health law and policy at the University of South Florida, to help write the bill after reading about her research last year. 

Conner, who focuses on disparities in mental health care, took the opportunity to help craft a bill she says will strengthen the state’s medical accessibility and literacy.

One local initiative Conner says the statute will support is decreasing language barriers in Tampa Bay’s healthcare settings. 

“(Tampa Bay) has a high number of individuals where English is not their first language,” Conner explained. “And language access is a huge barrier to care for health, as well as behavioral health. Those kinds of very specific initiatives could have a very rapid impact on health disparities.” 

According to the bill, the Office of Minority Health and Health Equity will work with local health departments to oversee such initiatives. 

The office gained $9.2 million in funding from this year’s budget to study and pursue medical accessibility, which includes working with local health departments to collect and publish data, as well as implementing programs to benefit minority populations.

After the statute takes effect on July 1, a liaison from each county’s health department will work with the Office of Minority Health to coordinate this data collection, which Conner says is the starting point for concrete action.

The USF professor also said making local universities “hubs” for data-based research and anti-bias training is another local goal she’s confident will emerge from the statute. With better funding and communication across county lines, she says pooling resources to create these types of programs, and then using the resulting data and analyses to determine the best route for community action, is more likely than ever. 

“My goal would be to see some sort of a coalition, or (a group) of invested stakeholders from across the state, who have an expertise and interest in this area, who could look at this data and prioritize issues,” Conner said.

One big issue, which Rouson highlighted as a driving force behind the bill’s creation, is Covid-19’s disparate effect on minority communities. 

According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “long-standing systemic health and social inequities have put many people from racial and ethnic minority groups at increased risk of dying from Covid-19.”

“This pandemic has ripped the scab off of the wound for health disparities in minority communities,” Rouson said in a USF press release.

Along with better record-keeping practices surrounding health equity, HB-183 also requires local health departments to publish this data annually on their websites, and to list resources for healthcare providers to learn more about medical bias, as well as for minority patients to learn about what programs are available to them.

Conner says she’s glad the bill passed with little opposition, and believes the approved statute will “move the needle” on larger cultural issues surrounding healthcare, like reducing stigma behind medical treatment and improving medical literacy.

“This is one step in the right direction … ,” Conner reflected. “I’m very happy that Gov. DeSantis recognized the benefit of this bill and was willing to sign it.”

 

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