Spectrum Health pledges $100 million to address inequities in health care

GRAND RAPIDS — Spectrum Health, the largest care provider in Western Michigan, has committed at least $100 million over the next decade to address racial and ethnic disparities and improve equity in health care.

That amount represents a 40-percent increase in what the Grand Rapids-based Spectrum Health now spends on initiatives to improve health equity and reduce disparities.

Ken Fawcett, vice president of Spectrum Health Healthier Communities
COURTESY PHOTO

“Our mission is to improve health, inspire hope and save lives for every person, and we understand the urgent need to do more for communities that for too long have experienced health and social inequities,” Spectrum Health President and CEO Tina Freese Decker said. “The events of the past few months related to COVID-19 and systemic racism have highlighted the need to do more for our African American/Black, Hispanic/Latino and other underserved communities. These events have highlighted, for example, the fact that these communities are disproportionately affected by COVID-19.”

In elevating its focus on the problem, Spectrum Health said it will pursue greater collaboration with community groups and medical clinics and other organizations, and build on programs supported by Spectrum Health’s Healthier Communities program that has long worked to erase inequities in health care and health outcomes.

Through the initiative, Spectrum Health hopes over time to close the gaps in incidence rates of chronic illness that are generally higher among minorities, increase longevity, and reduce racial disparities, said Ken Fawcett, vice president of Spectrum Health Healthier Communities.

The move by Spectrum Health follows the higher death rate among African Americans from COVID-19, and protests nationwide triggered by the death in Minneapolis, Minn. of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer.

Racial inequities are also found in the death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic in Michigan, where more than 40 percent of the deaths have been African Americans, which comprise less than 14 percent of the state’s population. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in April signed an executive order creating a task force to examine the causes of the racial disparity in the pandemic and recommend what to do about it.

The pandemic’s effect on African Americans “has really shined a light on these disparities” that “existed long before COVID-19,” Fawcett said.

“What you have here is the collision of both the pandemic that is COVID-19 intersecting with the epidemic of racial disparities, inequities and health disparities that existed for a long time,” Fawcett said. “That’s drawn a lot of attention and a strong desire to do and to build on what we have already done.”

Fawcett cites infant mortality rates as an example where Spectrum Health Healthier Communities has previously addressed racial disparities. At one point, the infant mortality rate in Grand Rapids among African Americans was the among highest in the state. Over 18 years, and through an initiative called Strong Beginnings, the rate has come down to a “near normalized” level, Fawcett said. 

The health system’s commitment includes $20 million to $25 million over a decade at Spectrum Health Lakeland in St. Joseph, which it expects to generate and spend annually through the creation of a $50 million capital fund to support initiatives on health equity across its market in Southwestern Michigan.

“We recognize that this is a point in time that requires concerted action, and we’re renewing our commitment to ensure we’re doing all we can to significantly reduce health disparities and remove inequities that exist in our health care system,” said Dan Hopp, chairman of the board of directors at Spectrum Health Lakeland. “This is the first step of a journey that we hope will achieve that end.”

Lakeland plans to forge partnerships throughout Southwest Michigan to improve health inequities. The fund “will stimulate new initiatives, innovations and progress toward health equity for all,” and award its first grant in early 2021, according to an announcement from Lakeland.

To lead the effort, Lakeland appointed Lynn Todman as vice president of health equity. Todman, who joined Lakeland in 2015 as executive director of population health, will serve as a member of the health system’s leadership.

“Spectrum Health Lakeland is committed to fully live our mission of improving health, inspiring hope, and saving lives. Racial injustice is harming health and shortening lives,” said Loren Hamel, the president of Spectrum Health Lakeland and chief strategy officer for Spectrum Health. “We recognize that some in our community have benefited less, and we want to ensure we are listening and focusing on their needs. Dedicated leadership is vital in the work to address the issues of racial equity and improving health disparities to ensure Lakeland is a place where everyone feels welcome.”

Spectrum Health’s overall effort will also look to address the social determinants of health such as access to care and health coverage, the availability of fresh foods, education, transportation, housing, poverty rates, housing and income, Fawcett said. Those are issues “that we haven’t always attacked” historically, Fawcett said.

“There are so many other things that have helped to create the situations,” he said. “Simply providing additional health care isn’t going to solve the disparities that exist. We have to do things differently.

“That’s where we see things changing going forward.”