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New Berkeley Public Health–led coalition drives health equity in California

UC Berkeley School of Public Health is the driving force behind a new coalition of public health schools and civic groups working to advance health equity in California.

The California Alliance of Academics and Communities for Public Health Equity, nearly ten years in the making, seeks to harness public health research to rectify injustices that have long harmed people with low incomes and communities of color in the state.

The alliance unites researchers at more than 30 California colleges and universities with community health care organizations that are already working to promote better health in both the state’s rural and urban centers. It is housed at the Public Health Institute, and funded by The California Endowment, The California Wellness Foundation, the California Health Care Foundation, and the Blue Shield of California Foundation and launched late last year.

Morry Rao Hermón, the BPH director of philanthropy who was instrumental in building the Alliance, views the coalition as a “Shidduch” – the Yiddish word for matchmaking – between scholars and community activists.

“There are many faculty at Berkeley and other schools who went into the public health field to make an impact in the world,” he said. “They want their work to have relevance for real, positive change.

“We can harness the vast resources of the academy to support grassroots community organizations who are on the front lines of advancing health equity, and who need support with data to make compelling cases to the legislature,” he said.

The organization has a broad agenda. Researchers want to increase diversity in California’s public health workforce and to train students to fight the impact of racism on health. They also want it to function as an engine for policy change on many issues, including environmental justice, domestic violence, gun violence, and the intersecting crises of homelessness, hunger, and discrimination.

“We’re doing something that hasn’t been done before in the U.S.,” said Dr. Michael Rodriguez, executive director of the alliance. “This is about building those bridges between the silos that have historically existed, so we can work together on a common policy agenda.”

Dr. Rodriguez has long been devoted to improving health equity. Born in San Francisco, he was the first person in his family to graduate from high school. He went on to attend medical school at UCLA, then trained in family medicine at UCSF before obtaining a master’s degree in public health at Johns Hopkins. Rodriguez was a family physician and professor of family medicine at UCLA for 21 years, and also founded the Health Equity Network of the Americas, a 24-country network of government, academia and community groups, based at the University of Costa Rica.

“When I heard about this project, it sounded very similar to other efforts I have done,” he said. “I feel lucky to be in this position.”

A decade of planning

Berkeley Public Health began working on the idea of a coalition back in 2015 when Dr. Robert K. Ross, president and chief executive of The California Endowment, approached Dr. Stefano Bertozzi, then dean of the school, with a question: Could public health schools and programs become a greater force for accelerating health equity by developing a common vision and increasing coordination?

Dr. Bertozzi convened a group of deans and directors of other public health schools and departments, who supported the idea.

When Dean Michael C. Lu arrived at Berkeley in 2019, he continued to reach out to the deans and directors of other public health schools and programs, including those in the University of California and California State University systems and private schools such as the University of San Francisco, Claremont Graduate University, and Stanford University. Dean Lu worked with Morry Rao Hermón to raise $1.4 million, develop a shared research agenda, and expand the membership to include community-based health groups such as the Asian American Senior Citizens Service Center, Latino Coalition for a Healthy California, California Black Health Network, and the San Joaquin Community Foundation.

“The pandemic has shown the world the price we pay for chronic underinvestment in public health,” said Dr. Lu. “It has also exposed the magnitude of health inequities in our state, and even within our own communities.

“The goals of the alliance are to elevate the collective voice and impact of all schools and programs of public health across the state, and to strengthen our ties with local health departments and community partners to help revitalize our public health workforce and systems, and to tackle deeply-entrenched social and structural determinants of health inequities in our state.”

With so much to address, what will the alliance take on first?

Dr. Rodriguez said the organization is starting with violence prevention, and is lobbying to repeal the current requirement for health practitioners to report suspected cases of domestic violence to law enforcement agencies.

The law was adopted to provide help for survivors of domestic violence, but, Dr. Rodriguez said, it often backfired.

“It had unintended consequences,” Dr. Rodriguez, who has published widely on the issue. “We found, from speaking to survivors, that many were afraid to go to the hospital or clinic, for fear of the consequences of being reported. Mandatory reporting laws deterred many people from seeking care. Many thought, ‘If you report me, I’ll be killed.’’’

Dr. Rodriguez said the alliance supports proposed legislation, AB1028, that would remove the requirement to report injuries from assaults or abusive conduct, and instead, require a health care practitioner who suspects domestic violence to provide counseling, education, or other support, along with a referral to advocacy services. He is encouraged by support for the bill, but is not certain it will pass.

“It is incredibly challenging to undo something, even when you have data and research to show it has unintended adverse consequences,” he said.

The alliance is also pushing for loan forgiveness for public health students and will soon  launch the Community Action Fund, a new grant program to pay for community-based organizations in California to partner with faculty and students from the state’s public health schools and programs. The deadline is April 14.