Legislature Addresses Systemic Health Disparities in Louisiana

Early in Louisiana's 2021 Legislative Session, the American Heart Association is encouraging lawmakers to prioritize several bills that would improve health equity in Louisiana. The organization is focusing its advocacy work this year on several issues, including improving water access in Louisiana schools, youth tobacco prevention, social determinants of health, and access to care. 

“Long before the pandemic, systemic challenges have contributed to disparities that impede some people from living long, healthy lives,” says Ashley Hebert, Louisiana government relations director for the American Heart Association. “COVID-19 has highlighted the inequities many Louisianans face on a daily basis. We must intentionally work together to address that through public policy.” 

Water Access 

House Bill 132, by Rep. Vincent J. Pierre (D-Lafayette), would require newly constructed public school buildings and those undergoing major renovations to be equipped with water bottle filling stations. The American Heart Association says this would help improve access to free, clean drinking water in schools. In addition to supporting healthy bodies, water positively impacts children’s cognitive performance, particularly their short-term memory. Water bottle filling stations in schools can nearly triple how much water students drink at lunch time. 

“Water access is hugely important for a child’s overall health, but for many Louisiana children, school is the only place where they can depend on a nutritious meal and clean water,” said Rep. Pierre. “I can’t think of a better time to focus on basic needs that support overall health and reduce the spread of germs.”

According to the American Heart Association, the cost of a water refill station compared to a water fountain is nominal in the process of construction and can save dollars over time.

“All children, no matter where they live or what grade they are in, deserve to go to a school that provides clean drinking water at no cost,” said Hebert. “We hope lawmakers can help make carrying water bottles the new normal in public schools.”

Youth Tobacco Prevention

Preventing youth access to tobacco products remains a focus of the American Heart Association. The organization supports House Bill 368, by Rep. Buddy Mincey, Jr. (R-Denham Springs), which would add information on the health risks of vaping/vapor products to the curriculum of elementary and secondary school-based substance abuse education programs. 

However, the American Heart Association is in opposition to House Bill 525, by Rep. Lance Harris (R-Alexandria). The organization believes this bill intends to change the definition of smokeless tobacco with the purpose of creating a loophole for new, harmful products being promoted by the tobacco industry as “tobacco-free” to give the impression that these products are more "pure," and perhaps less harmful. This tobacco industry tactic would enable these products to avoid tobacco regulatory requirements such as excise taxes and youth access.

Social Determinants of Health 

The American Heart Association supports Senate Bill, 133 by Sen. Regina Barrow (D-Baton Rouge), which would ensure the Louisiana Department of Health will serve as a foundation and resource for addressing health care disparities in vulnerable populations and contribute to the progression and improvement of Louisiana's healthcare rankings.

Access to Care 

The American Heart Association is supportive of evidence-based obesity treatment that adheres to clinical guidelines and emphasizes the need for lifestyle/behavior change. Bariatric surgery is one of the most evidence-based treatments to address severe obesity. The organization supports Senate Bill 150, by Sen. Regina Barrow (D-Baton Rouge), which requires the Office of Group Benefits to cover bariatric surgery techniques for the treatment of severe obesity. 

The American Heart Association is also supportive of expanding Medicaid to provide for maternal health. House Bill 486, by Rep. Mandie Landry (D-New Orleans), would expand Medicaid to provide postpartum insurance coverage to eligible pregnant individuals who qualify under the state’s Medicaid plan, one year after the end of their pregnancy. 

“Making these changes will have long-term, lasting impacts on the health of Louisiana communities,” added Hebert. “When Louisianans make decisions about their health—or the health of their children—we should be sure that policies do not limit their options and opportunities.” 

For more information on the American Heart Association’s policy priorities and how to take action, visit https://www.yourethecure.org/la-2021sessionagenda.