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Increase in alcohol tax could help address state’s health inequities | COMMENTARY

A proposed increase in Maryland's alcohol beverage tax would help pay to increase resources to address health disparities.
A proposed increase in Maryland's alcohol beverage tax would help pay to increase resources to address health disparities. (AP photo)

For years our health care system has failed some Maryland communities, especially people of color.

In Baltimore City, for example, life expectancy is roughly 20 years less for people in certain West Baltimore ZIP codes compared to those living just a few miles away in more affluent, white areas, while rates of chronic disease and infant mortality are significantly higher for people of color. In Prince George’s County, there was nearly a 16 year difference in life expectancies, with a concentration of poorer outcomes mostly in communities within the Beltway. For example, the life expectancy of predominantly African American Suitland is 70 years, compared to 86 years in predominantly white Greenbelt.

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The COVID-19 pandemic is another tragic marker. The disease has disproportionately affected people of color with higher rates of infections, hospitalizations and deaths.

Many factors have contributed to this, but one of the underlying causes is that many Maryland communities lack the health care resources they need, leading to stark health disparities.

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Our response is major new legislation to provide needed health care resources to Maryland communities that urgently need more services and better access to health care providers.

This initiative, known as Health Equity Resource Communities (HERC), offers a targeted way to make sure support is reaching the areas that need it the most. Eligible communities will compete to be part of the HERC initiative by proposing ways to address the health needs of their underserved residents. Those selected will receive new grants and tax incentives to expand care. Health care providers working in those areas could become eligible to have their educational loans repaid — creating a valuable incentive for providers to practice in these communities.

Over time, this initiative will pump major new funds into these previously underinvested communities, with health care providers making sure all resources are spent effectively.

Our goal is to wipe out the persistent health care disparities across the state, which harm people of color, people living in low-income neighborhoods and people in rural areas.

The HERC program is modeled after the successful Health Enterprise Zones (HEZ) Program which operated from 2012 to 2016 in Maryland and increased access to health resources, improved residents' health, reduced hospital admissions, and created cost savings in selected areas of the state, according to a study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

We have identified an appropriate funding source for the HERC initiative — a one cent per dollar increase in the state alcohol beverage sales tax. This would be the first increase in the alcohol tax since 2011, and it would bring Maryland’s tax up to that of the District of Columbia next door to Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

This is the right revenue source for a health care initiative. We know from the state’s experience over the past decade that increasing the alcohol tax not only generates revenues but also saves lives and leads to improved health outcomes, including a reduction in underage drinking, binge drinking, driving under the influence and sexually transmitted infections.

Under our legislation, some of the proceeds from the alcohol tax increase will also go to expand mental health and substance use disorder treatment programs — which are critically underfunded today.

A recent poll found that Marylanders overwhelming support the HERC concept.

We are proud to partner with a range of organizations to work to pass the HERC measure. Advocacy is being led by the Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative, which has been on the front lines of health care reform for more than two decades. This year, MCHI has brought together well over 100 community, labor, business and faith groups from across the state to endorse our legislation. We are counting on having their voices heard in the General Assembly session early next year.

While Maryland has one of the best health care delivery systems in the nation, if not the world, the COVID-19 crisis has made it clear that it is nonetheless failing many Marylanders. Too many people of color, low-income people and rural residents face an inadequate and discriminatory health care system that does not effectively meet their health needs. The past few months of protests over racial injustice have made clear that people in Maryland and across the nation expect our elected leaders to act aggressively to create a fair and responsive health care system for everyone, no matter which community they live in.

The HERC plan is a critical step toward a fairer and healthier future for our state.

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State Sen. Antonio Hayes (antonio.hayes@senate.state.md.us) represents the 40th District in Baltimore City. Dels. Erek L. Barron (erek.barron@house.state.md.us) and Jazz Lewis (jazz.lewis@house.state.md.us) represent the 24th District in Prince George’s County.

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