USF mental health professor helps draft legislation addressing health inequities, now law

For The Culture

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – There’s a new law addressing within the healthcare system and it’s all thanks to the work of a University of South Florida Associate Professor of mental health and State Senator Darryl Rouson.

Governor Ron Desantis recently signed HB-183 into law. It’s a law that is designed to improve access to health care for minorities by creating new initiatives and resources to the Office of Minority Health and Health Equity. The bill gives $4.4 million to the Office of Minority Health and Health Equity. The office will create county liaisons throughout the entire state, which will help improve relating local issues to the national level.

“There isn’t enough data on where the biggest issues are,” Conner said. “Florida is very unique. We have a large population of older adults, one of the highest populations of racial and ethnic minorities so the disparities we see here are actually larger than what we see in some other states, so we need better information about what’s going on here.”

The bill will also allow the OMHHE to collect, analyze and report data from all counties to help better community outreach efforts. This information will also be available online. In addition, the bill will create grants that will provide money to academic intuitions who will also collect, analyze and report data surrounding health disparities. This information will then go to the state.

The bill was sponsored by Rep. Kamia Brown and Rep. Dotie Joseph and championed in the Senate by Sen. Darryl Rouson. However, 99% of the literature came from the expertise of Dr. Kyaien Conner.

Dr. Kyaien Conner, Associate Professor of mental health law and policy at the University of South Florida

“Unfortunately due to the murder of George Floyd and the protests, one of the things that did come out of it was more conversations about the issues of disparities and not just in health,” Conner said.

Dr. Conner knows what it’s like to receive mistreatment, especially in the health space, due to the color of her skin. It didn’t take Floyd’s death for her to start talking about or researching the mistreatment many African-Americans face.

“Most of my research largely focuses on understanding health disparities, why they exist and why they are getting worse,” she said. “While I have been doing this work for all of my career, just in the past couple of years a significantly higher number of my grants have been funded because now funders are recognizing this is something we should care about.”

For decades, Dr. Conner has worked in low-income African-American areas where she witnessed disparities in how mental health is diagnosed and treated. She’s also witnessed mistrust in the mental health service delivery system and negative attitudes toward seeking mental health treatment.

“Mental illness has always been a taboo issue in the Black community where we think we don’t have time to be depressed or we try to struggle through it and then we end up in crisis in the emergency room when we could have had successful treatment in an outpatient setting.”

Her expertise is the reason why Sen. Rouson called her to help draft a health disparity bill that Governor Ron Desantis just signed into law.

Gov. Ron Desantis signs new health equity bill into law that was guided by USF’s Dr. Kyaien Conner and sponsored by Rep. Kamia Brown and Rep. Dotie Joseph and championed in the Senate by Sen. Darryl Rouson.

“It was a partnership made in heaven,” Rouson said. “She was brilliant, knowledgeable and passionate about the subject matter of minority health and we worked well together. She pointed out some areas that were consistent with her research, important to her and important to the larger community.”

Prior to the bill making its way through the legislature, Sen. Rouson said he was confident the bill would pass.

“I believe it was time to highlight the issue,’ he said. The issues going on in our community that brought it to light, made it very much something I believed could pass. “

The law took effect July 1. Rouson says he will continue working with Conner as they continue fighting for health equity.

“Health should be something that’s a right. It’s not something we should have to earn or that we have to have enough money to be able to get good access to care or because of the color of our skin we should be fearful of getting quality of care,” Conner said.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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