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Telehealth Is Key to Massachusetts Pandemic Response Efforts

by Jackson Cote, MassLive.com / September 16, 2020
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(TNS) — As the coronavirus pandemic ramped up across the United States early in 2020, Massachusetts officials began to implement a variety of measures aimed at staving off transmission of the viral respiratory infection and protecting the public.

In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker put in place a stay-at-home advisory and ordered non-essential businesses to close up shop in March, issued a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures in April and implemented a face covering mandate in May.

Chief among the efforts to combat the viral outbreak in Massachusetts was the governor’s creation of the COVID-19 Response Command Center and the move on the part of hospitals throughout the commonwealth to transition many of their services to telehealth.

That is according to state Sen. Cindy Friedman, commissioner of the Massachusetts Division of Insurance Gary D. Anderson and Michael Caljouw, vice president of public, government and regulatory affairs for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts.

In a discussion hosted by Boston College Law on Tuesday about the response to the virus in the state, the individuals recognized that the command center and the significant shift to telehealth services were key in addressing the public health crisis from the get-go.

“Having the command center was just critical, just to have not only a central place, but a single person,” Friedman said. “I don’t wish that job on anyone, but that was so critical, because there was a place where we could at least centralize information and feel like we were getting information back forth.”

Baker announced in mid-March his administration would be launching the command center to serve as the “commonwealth’s single point of strategic decision-making.”

Made up of members from various state agencies and led by Massachusetts Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders, the center was tasked with expanding testing capacity and distribution, planning quarantine operations, monitoring supply chains and responding to the needs of local boards of health.

Sudders was “both a bulldog and a rockstar" in leading those efforts, Friedman said.

Early on in the outbreak, when uncertainties about the virus were aplenty and state officials were trying to figure out what health and economic safety measures to put in place to best respond to the situation, the command center was paramount, according to Friedman.

“If anyone ever wants to question whether leadership is important, just take a look at this,” the state senator said about the command center.

Along with the creation of the command center, a “revolution in care” and an “explosion in telehealth visits” over the course of the public health crisis in Massachusetts helped the state respond to the outbreak effectively as well, Caljouw added.

An executive order Baker issued in early spring required that insurers cover medically necessary services telephonically, including behavioral health care, with the aim of preventing people from overloading hospitals that were preparing to treat coronavirus patients at the time.

Remote health care appointments also played a key part in ensuring residents had access to the medical attention they needed while staying home as much as possible to avoid becoming infected, according to Caljouw.

Since the order was issued months ago, the state has seen a surge in telehealth use, with doctors in Massachusetts saying they expect the landscape of telemedicine to change significantly once the outbreak winds down.

Notably, telehealth helped in a large way to address behavioral health needs, according to Caljouw.

The Blue Cross Blue Shield official added that telehealth used among seniors rose significantly during the months of the pandemic.

“During the height of the pandemic, about 80% to 90% of all care was telehealth-related, and it provided a very important life preserver, life raft for folks who were stuck at home and wanted to access services,” Caljouw said.

Blue Cross Blue Shield is still seeing major growth in the use of telehealth, even with many people feeling comfortable again to resume in-person appointments with physicians. Use of telemedicine compared to the same point in time last year has grown by roughly 50%, according to Caljouw.

Between in-office visits and telehealth services, Blue Cross Blue Shield is now at 120% capacity compared to August and September of last year.

“Some of that might be pent up demand from folks not getting services before,” Caljouw noted.

Two pieces of information are worth noting about telehealth, according to Friedman.

First, it allowed appointments and health care to continue during a period of time when medical services were of particular importance.

Second, it allowed public officials like her as well as those working in the health care industry to critically analyze the pros and cons of telehealth and control it in a way to make it work for patient care.

Officials saw that telehealth worked for behavioral health and certain demographics like seniors, but it did not prove entirely effective for groups like children, the state senator noted.

“It’s not a panacea. It’s not certainly going to be the answer in every situation,” Caljouw added.

Still, telehealth provided a critical service not only to patients but also to hospitals, allowing them to build their safety protocols in response to the pandemic while avoiding disruptive drop-in, in-person visits.

“With the background in telehealth, If there’s a second surge, we can rest assured that telehealth will provide a backstop in that instance,” Caljouw said.

©2020 MassLive.com, Springfield, Mass. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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