SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois Legislative Black Caucus is drawing attention to national and statewide health disparities between Black and white Americans in an effort to educate fellow lawmakers and build consensus for action ahead of the fall veto session.
At a Friday news conference outside of the Touchette Regional Hospital in Centreville, ILBC Chairwoman state Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Maywood, discussed the near-fatal pregnancy of pro tennis player Serena Williams.
“When Serena Williams gave birth to her daughter Olympia, she nearly died a day after giving birth due to complications. Her initial request for treatment was ignored and doctors took more time to assess what she knew to be blood clots,” Lightford said. “When she wrote about her experience, it helped shed light on high maternal mortality rates among black women in the United States, and Illinois. Black women are six times as likely to die of a pregnancy related condition than their white counterparts.”
According to Lightford, Black Illinoisans are 3.4 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than white Illinoisans as the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated long-existing racial health disparities.
Health care and human services make up the fourth and final pillar of the ILBC’s veto session legislative agenda to end such disparities which stem from systemic racism.
State Sen. Mattie Hunter and Rep. Camille Lilly, both Chicago Democrats, are leading the effort on health disparities.
“African American children are 60 percent more likely to have asthma than their counterparts. Black Americans are 45 percent more likely to suffer from hypertension, high blood pressure, and have greater risk of heart attack, heart disease, stroke, and ultimately death,” Lilly said. “African Americans and Black people are more likely to experience poor health outcomes as consequences of social influencers. Health inequities stem from economic instability, lack of education, physical environment, lack of food.”
State Sen. Christopher Belt, D- Centreville, gave personal testimony on how social determinants of health impacted his own life. He referenced a 2019 USA Today report that listed Centreville as the poorest town in America.
“I was diagnosed with high blood pressure at 22 years old. I had headaches out this world and didn’t understand what they were from,” Belt said. “I thought it was because I worked a midnight shift and didn’t get enough sleep in the morning. I was at the gym one day, I put my arm in a blood pressure machine and I was at aneurism level, at 22.”
According to Belt, Black Americans are 60 percent more likely to have diabetes than white Americans, and when diagnosed with diabetes, are 2.5 times more likely to suffer a limb amputation and 5.6 times more likely to die and suffer from kidney disease. Nearly 42 percent of Black men and over 45 percent of Black women aged 45 and older have high blood pressure.
Belt himself has kidney disease caused by hypertension and received a kidney transplant in 2010.
“I did one year on dialysis, I look across the room and my brother is on dialysis… If I look behind me, I see other people from my neighborhood… Six of us in there,” he said. “You talk about environmental poverty and I could raise my hand. I can speak to that. And so this hits me close to my heart. African Americans are three times more likely to die of asthma, again, to talk about environmental poverty. My son has asthma.”
Belt said the mental, physical and emotional strain felt by Black Americans who are caught in the socioeconomic conditions that lead to these disparities creates a phenomenon he calls “persistent traumatic stress syndrome.”
The Senate Human Services and Public Health committees held a joint hearing on health disparities and social determinants of health care Friday, the latest in nearly a dozen joint hearings prompted by the ILBC’s legislative agenda.
According to Lightford, the hearings – which include testimony from experts and stakeholders in the four pillars of criminal justice, economic equity, education and health care – are meant to educate the public and the ILBC’s non-Black colleagues on the issues and disparities facing Black Americans.
The ILBC intends to present legislation addressing the four pillars during the veto session that is scheduled for Nov. 17-19 and Dec. 1-3. Democratic leaders, including Gov. JB Pritzker, state Senate President Don Harmon and state House of Representatives Speaker Michael Madigan, have all publicly pledged to support the ILBC agenda and corresponding legislation.
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