We the Partnership

Collaboration in action: How federal agencies work with local communities to create better health equity

By Jessica Reynoso | April 14, 2021

COVID-19 has disproportionately affected underserved communities across the U.S. However, one initiative from the Department of Health and Human Services is trying to reduce health disparities related to the virus and other illnesses.

In HHS Region 9—which serves state and local organizations in four western states and several U.S. territories—leaders created the Health and Equity Collaborative to accomplish this goal. What began as a group of 26 leaders and division heads focused on educating federal employees about personal health choices has transformed into a collection of 77 employees—leaders, managers and staff—who collaborate regularly to create more equitable health policies, programs and practices in the region.

Headed by Commander Matthew C. Johns, the regional health administrator for Region 9, the collaborative meets twice a month with its various partners and stakeholders to learn about health equity in the area. The meetings also provide opportunities for community members to share their stories on experiences and barriers to access which help federal agencies better serve the most marginalized populations in Region 9. In addition, the collaborative has coordinated roundtable discussions with state health officials and nongovernment organizations to learn about—and help remedy—underserved communities’ lack of access to COVID-19 vaccines.

The Health and Equity Collaborative’s work provides three main lessons for agencies as they strive to advance racial equity and support underserved communities—two ideas outlined by one of President Biden’s first executive orders.

  1. Conduct local outreach to learn about disparities in underserved populations. The best way to learn about the needs of underserved populations is to hear directly from communities that are most impacted. The Health and Equity Collaborative was able to engage local partners to learn about current health equity challenges. “To date, our greatest achievement has been expanding out to community-based and faith-based partners. It has been a wonderful opportunity to have those at the most local level share their stories,” Johns said.
  2. Do less talking and more listening. When convening with partners, stakeholders and grantees, active listening is key to understanding where gaps in resources exist and how the federal government can help fill those gaps. “[Listening] is instrumental in good public health practice and is vital in the proper role of the federal government’s support and partnership with state and local health departments,” Johns said.
  3. Use what you learn from local partners to support the needs of underserved communities. After engaging local partners, allocating resources that directly address the most urgent needs of underserved communities is equally important. Engaging nontraditional partners can help with determining where to allocate resources. “There needs to be an equal emphasis on action driven by what we hear. This is another area where the health equity discussions with a wide variety of stakeholders from nontraditional health organizations can effectively steer resources to the systems needed to properly prepare for, respond to and recover from the next major health emergency,” Johns said.

The Health and Equity Collaborative’s work underscores how federal agencies can work with local partners to reduce health disparities. As agencies move to promote equity, it is crucial that they focus on our nation’s most marginalized communities. Although effective collaboration can take time, working together is necessary to create a more equitable future.


Jessica Reynoso