Minnesota Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger on Tuesday urged state lawmakers to conduct health impact assessments for all major policy proposals.
Ehlinger's call to action was one of seven recommendations from the Department of Health aimed at ending persistent health disparities between whites and people of color in Minnesota, among the worst in the nation.
Research has shown that access to high quality jobs, education and housing are associated with improved health.
With that in mind, Ehlinger told a Senate committee that just as lawmakers look at the fiscal effect of policy proposals, they should also consider the health consequences of their legislation. He gave them several examples, among them:
"What's the health impact of a minimum wage bill? What's the health impact of any policy related to school advancement? What are the health impacts of housing decisions that are made? What are the health impacts of the transportation policies that are made?"
Members of the Health, Human Services and Housing committee were briefed on a new health department report that blames some of Minnesota's health disparities on structurally racist government rules and societal decisions. The report concludes that unfair policies often are unintentional, but they routinely benefit the majority white population at the expense of populations of color.
Ehlinger told the committee that his agency will examine all health department policies to make sure they do not inadvertently favor one group over another. He said the department will continue to address health disparities by:
• Advancing health equity through all policies in all sectors
• Continuing investments in efforts that are working to advance health equity
• Providing statewide leadership
• Strengthening community relationships and partnerships
• Redesigning grant-making
• Making health equity an emphasis throughout the department
• Strengthening the collection and analysis of data
In a letter included in the health department's report, 23 other Minnesota state commissioners said they are also committed to eliminating health disparities.
"If we're going to be the healthiest state, we really do need to address health equity and the disparities that are there," Ehlinger said. "This is where you can take a leadership role as policymakers in our state to really raise those questions."
State Sen. Kathy Sheran, who chairs the committee, said she appreciated the health department's report and that she would work to build health assessments into her committee's policy discussions.
"I will look forward to working with you on some specific language to make sure that that happens, that besides a fiscal note, that we have a health note," said Sheran, DFL-Mankato.
Several community and health groups told the committee that they could do more to reduce Minnesota's health disparities if the legislature provided more money for their initiatives.