‘No easy solutions:’ Regence and business leaders convene on how to reduce health disparities for people of color

By Regence
May 04, 2023
Regence event

Main image (L-R): Mike Sotelo of the Ethnic Chamber of Commerce Coalition; Mike Fong of the U.S. Small Business Administration; Dr. Julian Perez of Sea Mar Community Health Centers; and Claire Verity of Regence BlueShield

Communities of color in Washington face serious health disparities, including less access to care and a lower quality of care. Regence BlueShield partnered with the Ethnic Chamber of Commerce Coalition for a town hall discussion on how to address the socioeconomic challenges that prevent people from living their healthiest lives, how to help ethnic communities navigate the health care system, and ultimately how to make Washington communities healthier.

The discussion at the Regence office in Seattle during National Minority Health Month in April was moderated by Mike Sotelo, president of the Ethnic Chamber of Commerce Coalition. Serving on the panel were Claire Verity, market president of Regence BlueShield; Mike Fong, regional administrator for the U.S. Small Business Administration; and Dr. Julian Perez, physician at Sea Mar Community Health Centers.

Sotelo noted that the rate of all pregnancy-associated deaths for Black people and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander people is more than 2.5 times the corresponding rate for white people. During the pandemic, the highest death rates from COVID in Washington were (starting with the highest rates first) Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander people, Native Americans, the Hispanic population and the Black population.

Sea Mar, a nonprofit provider serving the Latino community, saw stark disparities during the pandemic between populations with more privilege, like remote white-collar workers, and Sea Mar patients with social determinants of health including “language barriers, education barriers, immigration status, English fluency, level of education, transportation, trust (and) a massive, massive distrust already of the federal government,” Dr. Perez said.

The solutions for addressing health disparities aren’t simple and they aren’t easy, Verity said. But reform can’t happen without joining the conversation. “I want to focus on being curious, asking questions, taking feedback and being that ally and advocate,” Verity said. “That informs how we can change the way the Regence health plan operates, reduce disparities and advance health equity, both in terms of serving individuals as well as changing systems and structures.”

Verity cited several Regence initiatives, including an upgraded online provider search capability so members will be able to find doctors by their cultural competence, like ethnicity and language; the Four Communities project to increase access to preventative and chronic care in underserved communities; and the Consejeros program to help Spanish-speaking members understand their health benefits and navigate the health care system.

Speaking to the audience of Seattle-area business leaders, Fong said that health disparities aren’t just a moral issue but an economic one. Employees missing work because of health needs or other pressures costs the U.S. economy upwards of $220 billion a year. “If we just look at the disparities alone for Black and Hispanic and Native American and Asian workers, if we just brought parity between the amount of time that they need to take off and the challenges for health needs that they have and their families have and bring that to parity with white employees, you would see a $20 billion injection of resources into the economy,” Fong said.

It's been encouraging to be part of critical discussions about health equity as the pandemic enters a new phase, Dr. Perez said. “We're meeting new people who are healing together and working together, and hopefully with a new purpose, to reach out to those communities that are vulnerable, and deserve care. Because I often tell people, because you have less doesn't mean you deserve less.”

Watch highlights from the event below