2020 in Review: A Year of Heartbreak and Heroism
I’m not going to lie; I won’t miss 2020. I don’t think there will come a time when I sit back, stare off into the sky, and try to transport my mind back to some peaceful moment or place from this year.
2020 was heartbreaking, but it also brought out the best in so many people. During one of the most serious public health crises in a century, health care professionals rose to the challenge.
Many things were shut down in 2020, but health care wasn’t one of them. Indeed, the capacity of our health care system to meet the needs of Americans was strained as it rarely has been. I’m proud of my provider colleagues who have continued to show such determination and compassion throughout the pandemic, showing up for work every day in stressful conditions, risking their own health in service to others. History will remember their heroic response to COVID-19.
We can learn a lot during challenging times. And in that sense, 2020 was like graduate school for the entire health care field. We did a lot of learning during the pandemic, and we’re applying what we learned to improve health care.
The Rise of Telehealth
A big part of meeting the changing health needs during the pandemic has been the rapid adoption of telehealth. COVID-19 allowed many patients and physicians to try telehealth for the first time, and it’s proven popular. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (Blue Cross NC) saw telehealth claims increase by 7,000% in the initial months of the pandemic. Both providers and patients are embracing the potential of telehealth; the question now is how to make telehealth financially sustainable.
Blue Cross NC has been covering telehealth for 20 years, but we expanded telehealth coverage in 2020 and will continue to cover telehealth visits in parity with in-person medical appointments through June 2021. We’re talking with our provider partners about how to make sure virtual health care doesn’t become yet another cost that adds to an already-too-costly health system.
One area where telehealth has been particularly helpful is in behavioral and mental health. The COVID-19 panic has caused stress, anxiety and depression for millions of people across the country, and indeed, around the world. Maintaining physical distance is critical during a pandemic, but that kind of separation can exacerbate existing behavioral and mental health issues, including substance use disorders.
Blue Cross NC has encouraged members who’ve previously received behavioral health services to ask their providers if virtual visits are an option.
Forging New Collaborations
The urgency of dealing with the pandemic has brought a new level of collaboration in health care, with cross-sector alliances finding creative ways to work together.
Blue Cross NC is part of the Made in NC initiative, joining with North Carolina State University’s Nonwovens Institute, Freudenberg Performance Materials, UNC Health, the NC Healthcare Association Strategic Partners, and the NC Medical Society to manufacture and distribute N95 respirators for our state’s health care workers. We need more of these innovative projects that bring together varied players sharing common goals.
As elective health care saw steep declines during the early months of the pandemic, smaller independent primary care practices were suddenly struggling to pay their bills and keep the doors open for patients. Blue Cross NC launched the Accelerate to Value program to help these practices remain financially stable and make the move to value-based care that rewards health outcomes instead of the volume of care delivered.
The traditional fee-for-service model in health care is quickly becoming obsolete, opening the door for new opportunities to work together toward our shared goals of better, simpler, more affordable health care. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought new momentum to seizing these opportunities.
Leading to a Better Health Future
2021 will focus on distributing the COVID-19 vaccine to everyone who wants it, expanding access to health care through a sustainable telehealth model, and continuing to identify ways for providers, insurers, employers, academic institutions and consumers to work together toward better health in North Carolina.
2020 isn’t one we’d want to repeat, but it’s my hope that the health care community’s collective response to a terrible situation can lead to more innovation and collaboration, laying the foundation for a better health future.