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Tackling health disparities one federal policy at a time

How Janelle Gillings, Merck's director of federal policy and government relations, helps promote health equity

March 30, 2021

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The COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on longstanding issues surrounding health disparities in the U.S.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that people in racial and ethnic minority groups are among the most likely to be hospitalized or die from COVID-19.

In addition to race and ethnicity, Janelle Gillings says a person’s gender, socioeconomic status, education, sexual orientation or where they live can lead to disparities in the quality and outcome of health care they receive.

These are some of the many reasons why Janelle is fighting to reduce social determinants of health.

Helping communities understand health policies

Throughout her career, Janelle has worked with health policy organizations and patient and provider groups to help raise awareness and education around various health policy issues including health disparities.

In 2020, Janelle participated in discussions on the development of the National Hispanic/Latinx Health Policy Agenda 2020 – 2024, which includes policy recommendations for national issues like HIV/AIDS, access to health care, prevention and mental health.

“I met and engaged with many Hispanic/Latinx advocates who were all inspiring in their efforts to improve health outcomes for minorities and to ensure Hispanic/Latinx participation and inclusion in erasing health disparities in the U.S.,” Janelle says.

Disparities in HIV health care

When people in high-risk communities, including those living with HIV, were worried about facing further complications due to COVID-19, Janelle participated in discussions with them and listened carefully to their concerns.

HIV community leaders shared their fears with Janelle – that people with HIV would have trouble staying adherent to their medications while facing employment loss, housing or food insecurity, and lack of internet service when much of the country was turning to telehealth.

To address these problems, Janelle and her colleagues are working on a policy landscape assessment that will review federal regulatory and legislative developments to address social determinants of health in HIV/AIDS and identify areas of need that prevent progress.

Recognition for making a difference

Janelle’s work has not gone unnoticed. In March, The National Minority Quality Forum (NMQF) awarded her the 2021 “40 Under 40 Leaders in Minority Health” award, which recognizes young leaders for their efforts to eliminate health inequities and improve health outcomes across the country.

“It is truly an honor to be selected,” Janelle says. “Especially by an organization that works tirelessly to ensure that racial and ethnic populations and communities receive optimal health care through evidence-based and data-driven initiatives to ultimately eliminate health disparities.”

Even with her accomplishment and recent progress, Janelle knows there’s a lot of work to be done. It’s a challenge she’s ready to take on.

“I look forward to continuing my work in supporting Merck's efforts in addressing health disparities to further advance and achieve health equity in the U.S.”