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The Wisconsin Department of Health Services will create a new office to tackle disparities in health care and hire a new executive to run it, according to a press release from the department.

“Structural racism contributes directly to unequal access to wealth, housing, food, and health care. All of these factors, in turn, have a profound impact on how long people live and how healthy they are. To improve health outcomes of historically underrepresented groups, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) is creating an Office of Health Equity. The office will conduct research and policy analysis to address the social determinants, or root causes, of health. This includes, but is not limited to, access to housing, stable income, and health care,” the release reads.

“One of my top priorities has been making health care more accessible and affordable while working to improve health outcomes,” Governor Tony Evers said in a statement. “COVID-19 has only underscored the work we have to do to address inequities, reduce health disparities, and build a state that works for everyone. I’m proud of the work our agencies have been doing to connect the dots on this issue and that DHS is doing to make long-lasting changes that prioritize the health and well-being of folks across our state.”

DHS released a data dashboard in late 2020 that shows the health impact of COVID-19 by race and ethnicity from February 5, 2020, to today. Compared to people who are White, Hispanic, or Latinx people living in Wisconsin are 1.7 times more likely to get infected with COVID-19, people who are Black are twice as likely to be hospitalized, and Indigenous people are 1.5 times more likely to die from a COVID-19 infection. This difference in rates can be connected to stress caused by daily encounters to racism, access to services, food, employment, a stable income, transportation, and living conditions, according to the DHS release.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated vast differences in COVID-19 risk and outcomes, particularly for people of color. We have to change the circumstances that create gaps in opportunity to be healthy and in health outcomes,” DHS Secretary-designee Karen Timberlake said in a statement. “Our Office of Health Equity will help us continue to address health disparities and promote a culture of inclusion where Wisconsinites from all racial and ethnic identities, ages, nationalities, social and economic status, sexual orientation, gender identity/expression, religious, political, and ideological perspectives, and physical and mental abilities are able to thrive and be engaged in their communities.”

According to the release, the new Office of Health Equity will coordinate existing and new efforts on equity and inclusion across DHS. Specifically, it will:

  • Implement strategies to build an infrastructure and culture committed to equity and inclusion.
  • Provide statewide leadership for policy measures that aim to improve the health of vulnerable populations in Wisconsin.
  • Assure coordination of efforts intended to reduce health disparities.
  • Minimize the impacts of health disparities in our communities by evaluating and proposing changes to DHS policies and budget.
  • Create an extensive network of community and agency partners, both formal and informal. Fostering these types of community partnerships will not only extend the reach of our work but also enrich our efforts by centering diverse perspectives.
  • Provide data analysis to help leadership and program staff make data informed decisions on policy areas that affect millions of Wisconsinites.

The office will be led by a newly created position, the Director of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, that will provide strategic and programmatic leadership for health initiatives, including breaking down barriers and infusing equity into programs and outreach. The director will have the opportunity within state government to build a new office from the ground-up and implement the mission, vision, and values of the office.

“The Office of Health Equity will need a strong, talented, entrepreneurial leader who will help us put our commitment to reducing health disparities into action,” Timberlake said in a statement. “We are seeking candidates from all backgrounds with a variety of lived experiences to apply for this role. Our future leader will shape the future of our agency’s diversity, equity, and inclusion work both within the internal workforce culture and for the externally facing work of DHS.”

Those interested in filling the position can apply at this link.

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