In the News: GNOF awards $700,000 in grants to address why racial health disparities exist in Louisiana

Ryan Whirty, The Louisiana Weekly • May 5, 2020

With the continuing COVID-19 crisis revealing racial disparities in patient health outcomes across Louisiana, officials are hoping that the efforts of a state task force established by Gov. John Bel Edwards can dovetail with the work of several local New Orleans organizations that will receive grants from the Greater New Orleans Foundation (GNOF).

From “GNOF awards $700,000 in grants to address why racial health disparities exist in Louisiana”

by Ryan Whirty, Contributing Writer | May 4, 2020 |

With the continuing COVID-19 crisis revealing racial disparities in patient health outcomes across Louisiana, officials are hoping that the efforts of a state task force established by Gov. John Bel Edwards can dovetail with the work of several local New Orleans organizations that will receive grants from the Greater New Orleans Foundation (GNOF).

On April 24, GNOF awarded a total of $700,000 in grant money to nonprofit organizations throughout Southeastern Louisiana to close the gaps in individual and overall health outcomes between African-American communities and other racial groups.

These health disparities within the Black communities have been magnified by the COVID-19 outbreak and stem largely from long-standing effects of existing medical conditions endemic to African Americans, such as high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes.

The GNOF grants to local organizations and institutions are aimed at getting desperately needed medical resources, services and capacity to the New Orleans population, particularly people of color.

GNOF Vice President of Programs Carmen James Randolph said the foundation’s latest grants will target health challenges that have continually racked the African-American community – and that have been compounded by the spread of coronavirus.

“We know they have existed for a very long time,” Randolph told The Louisiana Weekly. “Generations of African Americans have not had adequate access to health care.”

Randolph said the organizations that have received GNOF grants have hit the ground running and already launched health-outcome efforts that have been expedited by the deep roots the recipient entities already have in the New Orleans area.

“Nonprofits are in the community and have the closest to get to [patients] where they are,” she said.

“For philanthropy, we’re working at lightning speed,” Randolph added. “Our goal is to be immediately impactful.”

The GNOF’s announcement of its grants comes just two weeks after Gov. Edwards announced the creation of a COVID-19 task force aimed at researching, identifying and tackling the reasons why African Americans in Louisiana who contract coronavirus are much more likely to die from the disease than white patients.

In announcing the creation of his COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force, Edwards noted that as of mid-April, about 70 percent of the state’s coronavirus deaths are African-American, which he called “a disturbing trend and one that deserves our attention.”

“When we talk about health equity, we mean everyone has the opportunity to attain their highest level of health,” Edwards said in a prepared statement upon the task force’s creation. “The great thing is that the findings and recommendations made by this Task Force will help everyone better access quality care and improve health outcomes. It will also leverage our research capabilities and intellectual brainpower in a collective manner to tackle this daunting issue.”

On April 21, Edwards announced the members, co-chairs and subcommittees of the task force, and several days later he reported that he had allotted $500,000 from the state’s COVID-19 Response Fund to the new COVID-19 Health Equity Taskforce.

Last week, Kimberly Robinson, the secretary of the state Department of Revenue and a member of the state equity task force, told The Louisiana Weekly that the COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force has much potential for collaboration toward a shared goal – the elimination of health disparities based on race – between the governor’s panel and locally-based efforts like GNOF’s grant program.

She said representatives from the task force and from the New Orleans grant recipients have already touched base with each other and started forging connections.

“It all works together,” Robinson said. “We can work in concert to eliminate health disparities and move toward the governor’s goal of equitable health outcomes around the state.”

Robinson cited that the grant recipients and state task force are each working on “identifying and treating the root causes [of the health gaps] and provide better access to care.”

One way the groundwork for such collaboration has already been established is the overlap in the membership of Edwards’ task force and representatives of several of the organizations receiving GNOF grants, Robinson said.

Examples of task force members who also represent GNOF-funded New Orleans entities include Tiffany Netters, executive director of 504HealthNet, Inc.; Shelina Davis, chief executive officer of Louisiana Public Health Institute; and Dr. Tavell L. Kindall, an adjunct professor at Loyola University and a nurse practitioner and director at St. Thomas Community Health Center.

Robinson said shared goals and possible areas of collaboration between the governor’s task force and GNOF grant recipients include bolstering mobile COVID-19 testing programs; researching and pinpointing the underlying conditions that compound coronavirus symptoms; procuring and distributing to medical staff and health-care workers more personal protective equipment; and providing better, more comprehensive crisis-response and treatment training for medical workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 battle.

To that end, one particular area of concern has been the often-debilitating impact of coronavirus on one’s mental health. Everyone involved in the collaborative effort to address racial disparities in health outcomes agree that, with mental illness already permeating many Black communities as a result of factors like economic conditions and deteriorating physical health, the COVID-19 crisis has further deepened the impact of depression, anxiety and other psychological conditions among African Americans.

Several of the recipients of the GNOF grants have as their main focus psychological and emotional trauma and mental health disorders, including the National Alliance on Mental Health chapters in New Orleans and St. Tammany Parish, and the Metropolitan Human Services District, a state-established local government agency that provides support and care for the area’s most vulnerable communities, including racial minorities.

MHSD Executive Director Dr. Rochelle Dunham told The Louisiana Weekly that she and her staff are looking forward to rolling up their sleeves and putting the funding from GNOF to work in focused ways, a task that is often made more difficult by the general public’s underestimation of the importance of mental and emotional conditions on overall health. The stigma of mental health can also prevent proper psychological and emotional treatment, especially among vulnerable populations and people of color.

“It is very apparent that people are not prioritizing mental health in terms of funding and focus to make sure our workforce is able to talk about their problems,” Dunham said. “Emotional trauma doesn’t just go away. It just becomes compounded over time.”

Now, with coronavirus and its devastating impact of the Black community, factors like isolation and anxiety about personal finances are magnified, an effect that requires medical staff and volunteers to receive better, more comprehensive crisis training to treat mental illness issues. Dunham said that with the funding received from the GNOF, the MHSD can work to expand capacity for patients at treatment centers, as well as ensure that first-aid workers are adequately trained for psychological trauma and crisis.

Dunham said she and the MHSD staff are looking forward to establishing a two-way flow of information and research results with the governor’s task force, which she said “allows us at the local level to be most impactful.”

GNOF’s Randolph concurred with Dunham, saying that the COVID-19 epidemic has caused an increase in the need for critical mental health services within the community. For factors as cramped stay-at-home living quarters, inability to be with sick and dying loved ones, and being forced to make a painful decision between employment and financial security, and the health of one’s self and loved ones.

“We know we need to look at [medical staff] and public agencies that provide mental health support,” Randolph said.

This article originally published in the May 4, 2020 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.