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Posted by Steve Walsh on Oct 27th, 2020 11:09am

The Health Policy Commission held its annual Cost Trends Hearing last week, with a focus on health equity and the effect of COVID-19 on the commonwealth’s healthcare system. From the remarks by state leaders that bookended the event, to a deeply personal video presentation on the Massachusetts surge experience and several conversations around inequity, the event was a fitting reflection of the unprecedented challenges facing both our healthcare community and our society.

At the hearing’s outset, Governor Charlie Baker and Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders spoke about the work of hospitals and healthcare providers as they continue to step up and stand strong in the face of this deadly, insidious public health crisis. 

“Healthcare workers are perhaps our greatest asset in fighting this virus,” said Governor Baker in his video message to attendees, adding that the capability and fortitude of the healthcare workforce is what has allowed the system to remain nimble throughout the year.

“While we were stretched and strained…you saw the collaboration of our healthcare community. It acted and performed as a system,” Secretary Sudders said as she recounted the efforts providers undertook during the initial COVID-19 surge.

Both the Governor and the Secretary emphasized that the lessons learned during the pandemic – such as the power of telemedicine – must be acknowledged for their long-term value, even after the virus has been eradicated.

The original video that HPC staff shared highlighted the effect of COVID-19 from a variety of residents’ perspectives, including patients, business owners, healthcare leaders, and caregivers. Several MHA members provided moving and inspiring accounts of the challenges and innovative approaches they undertook to navigate the first surge of cases here. 

“I think we emerged from this with a very different relationship with our community,” said UMass Memorial Health Care President & CEO Dr. Eric Dickson, who was featured in the piece.

The keynote address and discussion panels focused largely on health equity and what organizations are doing to address the needs of underserved populations. Healthcare leaders including Dr. Thea James, Vice President of Mission and Associate Chief Medical Officer at Boston Medical Center, and Deborah Wilson, president & CEO of Lawrence General Hospital, explained that they were “looking inward” at policies and practices that can improve how they reach patients, employees, and community members. The leaders cited local partnerships, the careful structuring of care models, and access to behavioral health and telehealth services as key in fostering a more equitable system. 

Panelists also lauded the role that telehealth has played during the pandemic, emphasizing its ability to increase access to care even after COVID-19 has been defeated. Dr. Steven Strongwater, president & CEO of Atrius Health, articulated the essential need for widespread telehealth coverage and indicated that increased co-pays for virtual services could magnify health inequities.

A second panel of experts spoke about some of the work that they’ve seen as key within the healthcare system during the pandemic, as well as what we should be paying attention to moving into the winter. Dr. Thomas Sequist, Chief Patient Experience and Equity Officer for Mass General Brigham, briefed the commission on his organization’s “COVID equity response,” which included expanded testing, partnering with local community health centers, and accommodating language barriers when communicating important information. 

Dr. Shari Nethersole, Executive Director for Community Health at Boston Children’s Hospital, recounted how the hospital took in pediatric patients from nearby facilities as the first wave struck and the central role that telehealth played for behavioral and primary care. Dr. Nethersole remarked that behavioral health will be a major point of focus as the crisis continues.

Attorney General Maura Healey in a video message played at the end of the hearing joined other state leaders in expressing gratitude to the healthcare community and frontline workers.

“You have helped us through a difficult first phase of this pandemic, shouldering extra burdens and risks, and we are grateful to you,” she said. Healey also discussed the longstanding health disparities in Massachusetts and nationally that the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated. 

“We must be willing to change longstanding systems that disenfranchise marginalized communities,” Healey said. “We must also recognize that the healthcare system alone cannot end health disparities, which are rooted in a broad range of deep-seated inequities.”

This year’s Cost Trends Hearing was an important opportunity to reflect upon the tireless work of our providers as they battle the COVID-19 pandemic and continue to address the longstanding health inequities that are all too prevalent in our communities. MHA is proud to work with our hospital and health system members, in partnership with state government, as we confront the next chapter of this public health crisis and improve the lives of all residents.

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