The COVID-19 pandemic has shined on a huge spotlight on the importance of our health care system and public health workforce. We have learned that our public health workers, although heroes, are not machines. Many in-demand areas of our public health system were overworked before the pandemic. Now they are overworked and burning out. As we start to emerge from the horrific tragedies that have occurred due to the virus, we have a unique opportunity to improve our health infrastructure, allowing more qualified workers into the areas they are most needed and providing patients with increased access to care. We need to learn from the mistakes of our past — because investing in health care and public health shouldn’t only occur during a crisis.
As part of the Pennsylvania Rescue Plan, we will allocate $20 million in federal stimulus relief to an expanded healthcare practitioner loan repayment program. This will fund training for high-demand, short-term programs like certified nurse aids, community health workers, dental hygienists and technicians, doulas, pharmacy and lab technicians, and more. It will also help match in-demand professionals to areas where they are most needed. This could mean incentivizing dental professionals to serve more rural populations, where dental care can be difficult to access. It could also mean retaining Black obstetricians being educated in Pennsylvania to practice here to serve Black mothers and their babies, both of whom are over three times more likely to die during and immediately after childbirth than white mothers and babies. Minorities have told us cultural competency is important to them. It’s on all of us to begin confronting these types of inequities – and often, systemic racism — in our health care system and make targeted investments into addressing them.
This pandemic has created a huge shift in how we access our health care. Before COVID, according to one survey, just 10% of Pennsylvanians utilized telehealth services – that number has now climbed to 88%. While telehealth is not possible in every healthcare scenario, it has removed significant barriers to care like transportation, time off work, child care and even stigma. This means more patients are seeking care and maintaining their schedule of care – especially low-income individuals most impacted by these barriers, which leads to healthier Pennsylvanians, improved outcomes, and lower healthcare costs for us all.
Telehealth is clearly an initiative that should be here to stay as part of our post-COVID “new normal,” but to sustain it will require an investment. Specifically, we must ensure that healthcare providers can implement and maintain secure platforms that will not jeopardize patient privacy. The PA Rescue Plan invests $25 million into a new grant program to help providers access secure, HIPAA-compliant technology based on access limitations like geography and specialty. Telehealth is particularly successful in helping individuals in need of counseling and therapy, drug and alcohol treatment, and other aspects of behavioral health to maintain consistent treatment and care. That’s significant because demand for mental and behavioral care has increased dramatically during the pandemic.
The last year has pushed our brave frontline health workers to the brink and tested their limits, but it shouldn’t have been that way. We should have enough skilled workers to meet demand — even during a global emergency — and this plan will help ensure that in the future. To meet these needs, we cannot go backward to a system that worked for some, but not all, or that invested in public health only in response to a specific crisis. Investing and innovating in technologies that allow patients to obtain care in their own way and on their own terms is not only the right thing to do – it just makes sense. It will allow doctors, nurses and other health professionals to deliver the same high-quality care in a more efficient manner without compromising privacy. Investing in health infrastructure through the PA Rescue Plan is a win-win in how we approach our collective health and wellbeing in a post-pandemic Pennsylvania.
Morgan Cephas and Dan Frankel are elected state representatives for the 192nd District in Philadelphia and the 23rd District in Allegheny, respectively.
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