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Hogan should support HBCU settlement to end lengthy lawsuit and prepare the next generation of health care workers | COMMENTARY

Vernon Johnson, left, a sophomore at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, holds a sign at a rally in Annapolis with other students last year in support of efforts to settle a federal lawsuit that is more than a decade old involving the state's four historically black colleges.
Vernon Johnson, left, a sophomore at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, holds a sign at a rally in Annapolis with other students last year in support of efforts to settle a federal lawsuit that is more than a decade old involving the state's four historically black colleges. (Brian Witte/AP)

This past session I had the honor of working with House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones and other members of the Legislative Black Caucus to cross-file her bill to give the state’s four historically black colleges and universities $580 million over 10 years to bring to an end a 13-year lawsuit that claimed discrimination against the schools.

And it’s about time.

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Thankfully, two days before the coronavirus pandemic brought the Maryland legislative session to a premature close, my colleagues and I voted to avoid a potential $2 billion dollar judgment against the state by voting unanimously to approve the bill to settle the civil rights lawsuit filed on behalf of a coalition made up of alumni from Morgan State University, Coppin State University, Bowie State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore (UMES).

This legislation removes a stain on Maryland’s record and resolves a judgment in which a federal court concluded that the academic program disparity between Maryland’s HBCUs and other colleges was “worse than Mississippi” of decades ago. The price tag of the legislation is substantially less than the billion dollar cost that the state placed during the trial on complying with the federal court judgment.

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The General Assembly approved the bill even as the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic ramifications were emerging, but before its disproportionate racial impact was clear. Now that the full effect of the pandemic is clearer, the HBCU bill is more important than ever, as it would position Maryland’s HBCUs to address the racial health disparities that have been exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic.

Unfortunately, even before the current pandemic, health disparities were so prevalent in our state (as they are across our entire nation) that my predecessor, former Sen. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam, sponsored legislation to create the Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities within the Maryland Department of Health to help address this issue. As The Baltimore Sun has written, in spite of Maryland’s 30% black population, around 53% of the COVID-19 deaths in Maryland are black. To his credit, Gov. Larry Hogan acknowledged the “troubling disparity” that COVID-19 infections and deaths disproportionately effect Maryland’s black citizens.

A number of social and health determinants contribute to the racial health disparity, but one is a shortage of black doctors. Much research suggests that having more black doctors would narrow the health disparities. In fact, some research suggests that having a black doctor results in black men receiving more effective care and treatment. Now more than ever, Maryland needs strong HBCUs to graduate students in science, biology, premed and other fields that can lead to careers in the health care professions. By enhancing and empowering its HBCUs, Maryland can lead the nation in addressing these racial health disparities.

Our HBCU bill will provide critical resources to our HBCU premed programs, as well as Morgan’s public health program, Coppin’s and Bowie’s nursing programs and the pharmacy and other health-related fields at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. All of these academic programs are critically important to addressing the underlying health disparities laid bare by the COVID-19 crisis.

Equally critical is the bill’s provision encouraging the expansion of HBCU online capacity, a critical part of the recommendation of Maryland’s Bohanan Commission, which recognized that because of historical discrimination, HBCUs lag other schools in terms of their online infrastructure. During this time of virtual and distant learning, bridging the digital divide is more important than ever.

When Democratic and Republican lawmakers joined together to approve the HBCU bill, we not only moved Maryland closer to resolving a 13-year-old lawsuit, but we also laid the foundation to help address the racial health care disparities that are wreaking havoc in Maryland’s black community. Given the aforementioned, I am very optimistic that even if he does not sign it, Governor Hogan will let this bill go into law.

State Sen. Charles E. Sydnor III (Charles.Sydnor@senate.state.md.us) represents Maryland’s 44th Legislative District.

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