That the coronavirus is an especially vicious killer in Black and Brown communities is well-known.

Less evident, but of real concern, is the federal government’s fragmented response to health care, compounded by the need for better data collection. Both hamper improved federal services, including the fight against systemic racism and implicit bias in federal programs, a battle President Biden promised to wage.

The opening line in an August government watchdog report is a zinger: “Many chronic health conditions are preventable, yet they are leading causes of death and disability in the United States.”

This Government Accountability Office (GAO) study identified 200 federal efforts to improve diets and fight chronic disease and found the programs were “fragmented across 21 agencies.”

That problem relates directly to the pandemic because, as GAO officials wrote, people with chronic ailments are more likely to be hospitalized or die of covid-19 than people without them. And the chronic condition of being a person of color means they also are more likely to be hospitalized or die of covid-19 than White Americans.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data say that compared to the White population, the covid-19 death rate among Black people is two times greater; Hispanic people, 2.3 times; Native Americans, 2.4 times. A White House fact sheet issued Tuesday credits Biden’s programs with significant progress in closing the racial coronavirus vaccination rate since May. Now Black, Brown and White rates for first injections are all in the 70 percent-plus range. This represents increases of more than 14 percentage points for Black Americans and Hispanics.

A federal strategy is needed to improve coordination of diet-related programs that combat chronic conditions, according to GAO, which said certain conditions hit men, Black Americans and people living in the South particularly hard.

Furthermore, GAO added in a paper last month, “implicit biases and misperceptions about people from various racial and ethnic groups, especially for Black women, can exacerbate disparities by race and ethnicity in access to care.”

Just like chronic diseases are preventable, so are health inequities. In addition to the coronavirus, the report points to “worse health care outcomes” by race in maternal mortality and among veterans.

Of course, the death rate is the most telling health statistic.

The life expectancy for White Americans born in 2020 was 78 years; for Black Americans, 72 years, according to the CDC. Despite other adverse indicators, the life expectancy for Hispanic Americans was 79.9 years.

A federal strategy to correct systemic inequities needs good data. But GAO and members of Congress say there are holes in the information and other problems that hinder a robust response.

There are racial and ethnic data gaps for coronavirus testing rates, cases, hospitalizations, deaths and vaccinations, GAO’s paper found. The gaps are huge. “Race and ethnicity information sent to CDC was incomplete for almost half of reported COVID-19 cases (47.2 percent) and for people who received at least one vaccination dose (46.7 percent),” GAO said in March. In 2019, GAO reported “weaknesses in the completeness and accuracy” of Department of Veterans Affairs health records, including “conflicting race and ethnicity information.”

GAO concluded the data gap could hinder the government’s ability to identify and combat health disparities. In the case of the coronavirus, GAO suggested giving CDC the authority to require states and localities to report coronavirus cases and deaths by race and ethnicity, a power now absent. GAO urged VA to assess the accuracy of racial and ethnic data in its electronic health records.

Agencies across the government are ill-equipped with the data needed to advance racial equity, two Democratic congresswomen told Susan Rice, Biden’s domestic policy council director, and acting Office of Management and Budget director Shalanda Young. The letter last week from Reps. Carolyn B. Maloney (N.Y.), chairwoman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, and Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) says implementing Biden’s January executive order, which calls for “an ambitious whole-of-government equity agenda,” requires the “collection of data that aligns with an up-to-date understanding of people’s identities and that reflects how diverse groups are differently situated. Most federal agencies do not yet collect this type of data.”

Young acknowledged the problem in a report to Biden about methods to assess equity.

“It is a difficult realization that Federal agencies have not fully delivered value to all of their constituents,” she wrote in July. “It is disheartening when a data scan reveals results that are at odds with organizational intentions and core national values. And yet, it is only through this ethic of learning and a commitment to evidence that governments become truly able to serve their people.”

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