Hartford coalition to target racial, ethnic health disparities

Shawn Wooden drew murmurs of recognition from the audience as he recalled growing up in the North End of Hartford.

“I feel like I spent all of my childhood at St. Francis Hospital being treated for asthma,” Wooden, the Hartford City Council president, said Wednesday at the city’s Wilson-Gray YMCA.

The memory has particular potency among black and Hispanic Connecticut residents, who are far more likely to have the condition than their white counterparts. Nearly a third of black children in the state had a history of asthma in 2008, as did 28 percent of Hispanic children. Among white children, the rate was less than half as high — 13.6 percent.

Wooden is part of a Hartford coalition of more than two dozen organizations that has received a national grant to target health disparities that affect black and Latino residents.

The grant program, known as REACH — Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health grant — is administered by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and will provide the Hartford group with $150,000 for two years. It’s intended to fund work that will spur policy and environmental changes.

Other communities that have received the grants in the past have focused on topics including diabetes, asthma and access to healthy foods. In South Carolina, for example, an effort to improve people’s ability to manage their diabetes led to a 44 percent reduction in amputations among African Americans, according to the CDC. In Boston, an asthma initiative targeted areas most affected by asthma and led to an 84 percent drop in hospitalizations for the condition.

In Hartford, the coalition will examine barriers to healthy living, with an aim of targeting things that make it harder for people to maintain a healthy weight, eat nutritious foods, be physically active, avoid tobacco products and second-hand smoke, and live in places that encourage emotional well-being.

That could mean examining how walkable an area is. If a neighborhood has no crosswalks, or the “walk” signals at intersections don’t give enough time to get safely across the street, people won’t do much walking, noted James Morton, president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Hartford. A policy change might involve ensuring that every street has a crosswalk.

Or it could mean looking at farmers markets, which now accept food stamps but might not be accessible to people with low incomes. Dr. Linda Barry, assistant director of UConn’s Connecticut Institute for Clinical and Translational Science, said it’s important to examine whether people can reach a farmers market on public transportation, and whether they’re open outside of typical work hours. Another potential barrier to healthy eating, she said: People might not know how to prepare the food they buy at a farmers market in a healthy way.

Lina Paredes, vice president of program at the Connecticut Health Foundation, offered a simple definition of the overarching problem the coalition is addressing.

“Racial and ethnic health disparities mean that our African-American and Latino neighbors, friends, coworkers are sicker and die sooner than the dominant population,” she said.

As part of the federal health reform law, more people will gain health care coverage, but Paredes said it’s important that they also have access to better care.

Wooden, who’s used to groups asking for money for programs, said he especially liked that the effort will focus on better use of existing resources and looking systemically at problems of disparities in health care.

“When we look at the extremely high infant-mortality rate in the city, when we look at cardiovascular health, when we look at cancer, all of these areas, diabetes, we have significant health disparities,” he said. “And what’s the point of rebuilding the infrastructure, the beauty of the city and then having jobs if people aren’t healthy enough to live and to grow and to prosper in our community?”

Dr. Jewel Mullen, the state’s public health commissioner, said the program, a public-private partnership, can be a model for the state and the country. She noted that the resources to address disparities are shrinking, and she said it’s important for the effort to show it’s having an impact.

The Hartford REACH Coalition includes community organizations, church groups, the city and state health departments, philanthropic organizations, and private companies including Aetna, Hartford Hospital and St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center.

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