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Texas Officials Are Revamping An Agency To Focus On Health Equity

Candles set up at the Long Center in October memorialize people who lost their lives to COVID-19 in Travis County
Michael Minasi
Candles set up at the Long Center in October memorialize people who lost their lives to COVID-19 in Travis County

The Texas Department of State Health Services is using about $45 million in federal funding to transform a part of the agency into the Office of Health Equity Policy and Performance.

The office will work with state and local public health entities across Texas to address disparities in health outcomes among different populations.

During the last legislative session, state Rep. Garnet Coleman of Houston introduced a bill that would have created a similar office called the Office for Health Equity. The bill, House Bill 4139, was a priority in the House, where it eventually passed. The bill was blocked by the Texas Senate, however, and didn’t even get a hearing.

In a letter sent Wednesday to the commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services, Coleman applauded state health officials for establishing the office anyway.

“I would like to thank you for taking the initiative to use the funds to create the Office of Health Equity Policy and Performance (OHEPP),” he wrote. “Like the office I envisioned in my bill, the OHEPP will have a cross-system approach and work with local health agencies to look at vulnerable populations (including along the lines of race and ethnicity, gender, age, socioeconomic status, geography, etc) to ensure that Texas has a more proactive and unified strategy in working towards health equity.”

Texas used to have a state agency tasked with tackling institutional racism and other barriers to health care access. In 2017, lawmakers defunded the agency, which was called the Center for Elimination of Disproportionality and Disparities. It officially shut its doors in August 2018.

State lawmakers said resurrecting the agency was a priority this year because Texans in communities of color were more likely to be exposed, get sick, be hospitalized and die from COVID-19. There have also been issues with making sure vulnerable communities are vaccinated at the same rate as other Texans.

Coleman said when a crisis happens there are always communities that are more likely to face worse health outcomes.

“[The pandemic] is not the only time that has happened,” he told KUT. “And it’s very important that we use the public health system and infrastructure to reduce the number of people who are part of that outlier group.”

For now, this office has one-time grant funding through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to address COVID-19 among people in high-risk and underserved communities.

Coleman said in his letter to Commissioner John Hellersted that he hopes to work with health officials and state leadership “to establish a more permanent funding source for this critical office into the future.”

Copyright 2021 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Corrected: June 24, 2021 at 1:55 PM CDT
This story was updated to note that an existing office within DSHS was renamed the Office of Health Equity Policy and Performance and tasked with addressing inequities. A new office was not created.
Ashley Lopez joined KUT in January 2016.