Two pandemics, one imperative: Transform health care In Rhode Island

Kim Keck, president & CEO, Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island

In the past three months, Rhode Island has experienced what’s possible when we work together across sectors to face dual pandemics – a public health crisis that arose suddenly and a moral crisis that has lasted for hundreds of years, the perpetuation of institutional racism.

United around a common goal, business, community, and government leaders have set aside individual agendas to focus on protecting the health and safety of Rhode Islanders and advancing social justice.

As head of Rhode Island’s largest health insurer, I am proud of what we’ve done to champion policy changes that created immediate access to needed care and removed barriers to treatment of COVID-19. We expanded access to telehealth so that patients can see their healthcare providers, including behavioral health and specialist providers, without leaving their homes. The data we collect is helping providers to identify and reach out to high-risk patients to mitigate potential virus exposure and spread.

I am also humbled by the actions of our employees in reaction to both pandemics, which have disproportionately hit our most vulnerable communities. Both pandemics have discriminated by race, age and socio-economic status. Blue Cross employees have stepped up. They work with the Rhode Island Coalition of the Homeless to get necessary supplies to dozens of homeless shelters and service providers across the state. They are helping Latino Public Radio to disseminate critical information in Spanish, throughout the Latinx community. And they have participated in company and public forums to expose and address issues of inequality and injustice.

Our company is prepared to seize this moment to initiate even bolder changes. We are ready to fix a system we know to be broken, to think creatively and futuristically, to accelerate innovations that will lead to better healthcare for all Rhode Islanders.

For example, enhanced telehealth, strategically (and conveniently) integrated with primary care can result in better outcomes. Further, introducing a model that provides a steady stream of income for providers rather than reimbursing them retrospectively for services performed will lead to greater stability for their practices. It’s also time to tackle the exorbitant cost of new curative drugs. Adopting a pooled-resources approach similar to what we already have in place for immunizations may be the answer. Thanks to the state’s immunization fund, when a vaccine is developed for COVID-19, Rhode Island will be able to purchase enough to vaccinate all Rhode Islanders.  

But these changes will not be enough if we do not address the societal inequities that these pandemics have so cruelly exacerbated. Fortunately, we had begun this work in earnest last year. Recognizing that zip code is more important than genetic code in determining health outcomes, Blue Cross and the Brown University School of Public Health launched the RI Life Index, an annual survey measuring Rhode Islanders’ perceptions about health and well-being in our state. Our most prominent finding: a high percentage of Rhode Islanders lack access to safe and affordable housing.

Since then, BCBSRI has invested $700,000 in organizations working at the intersection of housing and health. Concurrently, as part of the Rhode Island Foundation’s Long-Term Health Planning Committee, we are advancing a 10-year plan to provide equal access to high-quality care while addressing root causes of inequality. In July we will launch the 2020 RI Life Index survey with a particular focus on the health of minority communities.

Designing an equitable health care system with everyone’s health and safety at its center is a shared responsibility – and we are fortunate in Rhode Island to have forged strong public private partnerships. We invite payers, providers, hospitals and government agencies to join with us to build a sustainable infrastructure that can withstand and conquer future health pandemics, and the 400-year long pandemic of systemic racism.

We know that we’re not alone in seeing opportunities in crisis. Both of these pandemics can be catalysts for true transformation if we continue to apply their lessons to engage in meaningful action.

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