5 Things Virginia: Update from DMAS, Federal health agenda, Behavioral health

If you were not one of the almost 300 folks with us at State of Reform two weeks ago, you can see some of the highlights from the event for a sense of what you missed. There was quite a bit of news made in both breakout sessions and the keynotes. Some of what we learned at this annual conference is featured below. But, all of our sessions are recorded and available on-demand for you to go back and review.





With help from Emily Boerger

1. Legislators lay out priorities for next session

During a bipartisan, bicameral keynote conversation at the State of Reform conference, I had the opportunity to connect with three legislative leaders for their takes on the health policy themes that emerged during the 2021 legislative session. We also spent time talking through their plans for the future. Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant serves on our Convening Panel. She says in the next legislative session it will be important to address health policy in conjunction with social determinants of health, like education access and housing.

Del. Mark Sickles’s goals for the next session include investing in and improving workforce issues in skilled nursing centers. Sen. Louise Lucas stressed the importance of ensuring that no matter what type of policy is being pursued, that BIPOC people are not forgotten. “There’s still a lot left to be done around criminal justice reform, and for me that’s a health issue for Black and Brown people.” The full video of their comments is available here.


2. DMAS director discusses health equity initiatives

At State of Reform, DMAS Director Karen Kimsey offered an update on the top priorities and initiatives underway at Virginia’s Medicaid agency. A primary focus for DMAS, she says, is working both internally and externally at the department to improve health equity.

One external approach is the creation of a dedicated call center to address cases involving incarcerated populations with the end goal of ensuring these individuals have been screened and granted access to Medicaid upon release. They’ve also created a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council to directly address issues regarding health equity within their staff. More information on the future of the state safety net is available here.


3. LG Fairfax talks through health policy, COVID

Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax highlighted his vision for health care and health policy as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor. He said that one of his greatest highlights from public service was the helping to bring Medicaid expansion to the commonwealth, and that his record of accomplishments on health policy is a differentiator for him compared to the other candidates.

He also said that his recommendation to close public schools early before every state, save Kansas, was a demonstration of his leadership through COVID. When I asked him about what he learned about Virginia during this time of COVID, he said “I learned we are all interconnected. We are truly a commonwealth… As this virus began to spread, we are only as strong as our weakest links… We also got a reminder of the resiliency of Virginians… We saw Virginia band together, even as we saw job losses increase dramatically.”


4. Uncertainty in the 2021 federal health agenda

President Biden’s health policy agenda got off to a quick start but may slow in the coming months. In his latest piece, State of Reform columnist Jim Capretta outlines the high-profile health reforms that Democrats are discussing for possible inclusion in the infrastructure or family support bills that Biden has teed up.

Among the list of reforms up for discussion are efforts to lower the Medicare eligibility age to 60, include dental and vision coverage under Medicare, give HHS the authority to negotiate pricing for Medicare-covered drugs directly with the pharmaceutical industry, and create a public option. Capretta highlights the outlook, challenges, and opposition for each of these proposals.


5. Behavioral health during COVID

Provisional data from the CDC shows overdose deaths in Virginia increased 42% over the course of 12 months from October 2019 to October 2020. Mental Health America ranks Virginia 42nd in the country for adult mental health, indicating a high prevalence of mental illness and low access to care.

At the State of Reform conference, we brought together three experts to discuss the steps Virginia is taking to better provide behavioral health services coming out of the pandemic. During the discussion, panelists recommended incorporating mental health resources into the primary care setting, focusing on innovative solutions that address delivery models of care, and continued support for community behavioral health services.