Save the Sound Policy Interns Celebrate Health Equity and Recap Community Benefit Programs Legislative Win

As mentioned in a previous blog post, the 2022 CT Legislative Session brought many wins for our climate, water, and wildlife protections. In addition to tackling such priorities, we weighed in on strengthening federal hospital community benefit agreements. Why? Because our organization is vested in promoting equitable outcomes for public health, as it relates to preserving a clean and healthy environment for people.

Former Policy Interns Ian Reilly and Prabisha Bhandari provided various support from within Save the Sound, including aiding with activity coordination, advocacy and awareness, and public testimony in support of S.B. 476 An Act Concerning the Office of Health Strategy’s Recommendations Regarding Various Revisions to Community Benefits Programs Administered by Hospitals. By the end of the session, several of the provisions we supported were rolled into H.B. 5500 An Act Concerning the Public Health’s Recommendations Regarding Various Revisions to the Public Health Statutes. The bill will help to ensure that hospitals’ community benefit activities are actually meeting the health needs of the communities they serve and is a major milestone in Connecticut’s journey to address health disparities. With the passing of this bill, CT joins the rest of the Northeast and over half of U.S. states who have already strengthened federal community benefit regulations.

Community benefits are required by the IRS for non-profit hospitals to be granted tax-exempt status. The goal of these programs and activities is for hospitals to address the causes and impacts of health needs and generally promote good health in the communities they serve. However, federal guidelines do not provide strong guidance or requirements on conducting or measuring the effectiveness of community benefits programs that effectively meet community health needs. The result was community benefit programs/activities that inadequately addressed the root causes or impacts of poor health in communities.

The bill speaks directly of the need to improve health equity, reduce health disparities, and reduce the cost and economic burden of poor health, outlining in detail how this will be accomplished. The new bill designates the state’s Office of Health Strategy (OHS) as the supervising body over hospital community benefit programs and defines the required reporting process, which will include an initial health needs assessment conducted by hospitals for their surrounding communities, an implementation strategy that documents how hospitals will address identified community health needs, and generating annual reports that detail hospital community benefit activities and the progress those activities have made in addressing community health needs. New reporting guidelines improve accountability to hospitals by requiring in-depth analyses of the community health needs, including written statements describing which identified health needs hospitals will or will not be addressing through their community benefit activities, along with justifications. The strengthened program also requires community members, particularly those who experience the greatest health disparities, to have opportunities for meaningful participation in planning and decision-making process related to hospital community benefit activities. Hospitals must outline how they will obtain this input and publicly state whether this input was or was not used.

Beginning in 2024, OHS will publicly post to their website a summary and analysis of all hospital community benefit program reporting. OHS will host a public comment period which will be used to help identify how programs could be improved to better address community health needs. The results of this reporting and feedback process will aid to inform the Department of Public Health’s state health plan. This on-the-ground process of identifying successful activities that address the health needs of Connecticut communities will help inform effective state-level public health planning that better meets the needs of Connecticut’s diverse populations.

“It is so exciting to see Connecticut take the necessary time and resources to understand the diverse needs of its communities and recognize the circumstances that place people at risk of worse health. Through requiring meaningful public participation, this bill forces hospitals to engage residents about their lived experiences, which will ultimately help the state to implement equitable public health activities going forward,” said Ian Reilly and Prabisha Bhandari in a joint statement.

Save the Sound commends Health Equity Solutions for spearheading research and advocacy that was instrumental in passing this bill. Save the Sound supported this bill because we care about the health of Connecticut’s people and environment. Addressing the determinants of negative health includes addressing the environmental causes. Poor air quality from transportation and polluting facilities cannot be ignored as contributors to negative health, and the strengthened community benefit program regulations will reveal this.

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