Q&A: MHA’s Nicole Stallings explains health equity wins in legislative session

Nicole Stallings, senior vice president of the Maryland Hospital Association, says the legislative session resulted in several health policy wins that will benefit all Marylanders. In an interview with State of Reform, Stallings breaks down the session successes and explains why they matter. Stallings will also be a panelist in the 2021 Maryland State of Reform Health Policy Conference on May 13.


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Shawna De La Rosa: The Maryland Hospital Association supported several health policy bills. How did the pandemic shape the association’s advocacy this year?

Nicole Stallings: “When this session started, our hospitals had been in the fight with COVID for 10 months and we were in the midst of our third surge. It’s fair to say COVID changed everything in regards to MHA advocacy in Annapolis. We revisited our approach. We created not just a hospital agenda, but a health  agenda. We supported bills that we thought could improve the health of the communities we serve.”

SD: Can you explain the significance of the passage of the Preserve Telehealth Act?

NS: “We knew as far back as last May, only a month into the pandemic, we needed to preserve access to our telehealth services. At that time, Marylanders were relying on telehealth to receive care because the providers’ offices were closed, or they couldn’t get transportation or child care. For whatever reason, they couldn’t come in. Telehealth services provided a vital lifeline, not just for the patients, but for the providers. The bill includes audio-only services and that’s key. That is important for those who don’t have access to high-speed internet or technology. It also ensures there is parity in reimbursement. We wanted providers to be fairly reimbursed for their time and infrastructure.

We knew we couldn’t go backwards. The audio-only aspect of this is key, and is what made this part of our health equity agenda. There are pockets in Maryland were people don’t have access to high-speed internet or have the right technology. So this is an important win for equity.”

SD: Tell me about how legislation advanced health equity in this session.

NS: “We’ve seen a collision of two public health emergencies: structural racism and the pandemic. It outlined that we need to advance health equity and that providing resources is key. It’s about addressing the social determinants of health and getting resources to those who need it.

We supported the Health Equity Resources Act which will bring $59 million in additional funding to support more resources. It wasn’t a hard decision to support this bill. Our hospitals see first-hand all the nonmedical factors that contribute to health inequities such as food and housing insecurity and unemployment. It all shows up in our ER departments and all those outside factors are really baked into the problems.

We also supported the Commission on Health Equity Act. It’s all under our health equity umbrella. We also supported bills that looked at digital divides, grocery store “deserts” and lack of transportation. All these things together impact health.”

SD: Tell me about the Implicit Bias Training and the Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities bill.

NS: “For that bill, we are focused on holding up the mirror to increase implicit bias training and the sharing of data so we can see where resources are needed. This brings everyone to the table in a way that we are grounded through the sharing of data.”

SD: Looking into your crystal ball, where will we be in a year from now thanks to the passage of this legislation?

NS: “Many of the bills we passed lay the foundation for the continued work next year. Our telehealth bill will immediately help Marylanders access critical services. But our journey towards health equity will be a long one. It will take time to undo the years of chronic underfunding that have put these communities at risk. I believe the pandemic helped us realize how connected our worlds are and how underfunding the county health departments eventually undermines hospitals’ abilities to provide care. I suspect we will continue to work within these new partnerships we formed during the pandemic. In the years going forward, I believe we will all work together.

Overall, it was really gratifying to see so many lawmakers and partners rally around the caregivers who were keeping our state going. They were rightfully hailed as health care heroes and that showed in the number of wins we were able to get out this session.”

This has been edited for clarity and length.