Now over 20 months into the pandemic, four of Maryland’s key health care leaders gathered to discuss its impact on the state’s health care system and what’s yet to come in a webinar hosted Tuesday by the Maryland Daily Record.
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The panelists included Bob Atlas, president and CEO of the Maryland Hospital Association (MHA), Rebecca Canino, administrative director at Johns Hopkins Telemedicine, Traci Kodeck, CEO of HealthCare Access Maryland, and Leslie Simmons, COO and executive vice president of LifeBridge Health.
Their discussion centered on the intersection of COVID-19 and a wide range of health care silos, from health insurance, workforce burnout, and social determinants of health, but one issue warranted particular interest. The panelists agreed on the success of telehealth during the pandemic, and how to ensure that such access to care remains viable in the long-term.
The implementation and use of telehealth in behavioral health clinics, homeless shelters, and assisted living facilities was essential in reaching individuals who rely on wraparound services, Canino added. Aside from maintaining connections between patients and providers, “e-consults,” or telehealth usage between providers, reduced delays in patient treatment planning. Canino said the process reduced wait times for consults from weeks or even months to just four hours.
“Just think of how much better we can care for our patients and how much faster we can, and how much safer that patient can be taken care of.”
Despite telehealth’s success, panelists worried that state-level policy flexibilities put in place during the pandemic are starting to disappear, jeopardizing patients’ access to care. For example, Canino said either the provider or patient must be required on-site for a telehealth visit, leading to unnecessary travel. Additionally, behavioral health was not included as a part of the recently released Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) fee schedule for 2022.
Atlas echoed support for reinstating or maintaining telehealth and health workforce flexibility, a sentiment he said policymakers shared as well.
“Some of the flexibilities [MHA] had there, particularly around telehealth and workforce flexibility, need to be restored, and so the governor has promised to bring forward emergency workforce legislation and [MHA is] helping push that through.”
Atlas also highlighted the ongoing Interstate Medical Excellence Zone initiative, which would remove licensing barriers for providers. The measure, which aims to establish a zone between Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., would allow people living in rural areas to receive care from their nearest provider, which may be across state lines.
Aside from ensuring access to care, Simmons spoke on workforce burnout and the need for employers to continue finding ways to support health care workers. She said people often forget how quickly organizations have had to adapt to vaccine mandates, compared to previous epidemics.
“It took us years to make a flu shot mandatory for healthcare workers. Now, here we are making COVID vaccines mandatory in the matter of a couple months for our health care workers, and then we expect them to have rapid acceptance of that … overall compliance with health care workers is only 60-70%, so there are still ways to go with that.”