Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield CEO Curtis Barnett said his organization had a pandemic disaster blueprint mapped out in advance of the COVID-19 wave that hit Arkansas beginning in March, but planning your plan and executing your plan are two different things.
“Having a pandemic plan and actually living and working through a pandemic plan are two very different things,” Barnett said in an exclusive Talk Business & Politics interview. “Kind of like when you take the driver’s test…having the pandemic plan is kind of like doing the written part of the test, and then when you’re actually going through it, it’s more like the driving part of that.”
Barnett lauded the preparation of Arkansas’ overall health care community, which concentrated efforts on making sure the state’s hospitals and medical community could cope with a massive caseload on the system. The effect from that singular effort for preparation resulted in weeks of deferred care, which is unlikely to all return.
“I don’t think it will come back completely the way that it’s been deferred at this point. But what we think could happen is, is that when it does come back into the system, when it is delivered, the conditions are going to be much worse than they were had it been done the first time because we’re seeing people, unfortunately who have deferred care when they’ve truly needed it,” he said. “The key to the success of healthcare going forward is: can we get and keep people healthy? That’s our number one objective. And for people to be healthy, they’ve got to get the healthcare they need when they need it.”
The Arkansas Hospital Association has projected up to a $615 million net loss for its member hospitals through the end of June. Blue Cross Blue Shield is in the midst of a campaign to encourage those who deferred care to seek the medical attention they skipped.
While there was much adaptation to circumstances caused by the pandemic, some of those changes – such as more reliance on telehealth – will become permanent, Barnett said.
“We opened up telehealth in a much bigger way than we ever have before. We eliminated the copays for using telehealth and that doesn’t just include a telehealth company and providers who come through that channel, but really any network doctor that’s in our network as well as healthcare or mental healthcare professional. They could provide telehealth services and we would cover that with no copay to the member. Those actions really brought a lot of peace of mind to our members,” he said.
Barnett said he believes the pandemic’s hardship on people psychologically will require a greater emphasis on mental health.
“I think another change that we should look to is really around emotional and social health, behavioral health, mental health, whatever term you want to apply to it. I really refer to it as emotional and social health,” he said.
“For many of us, the anxiety and fear that we feel is going to go away when the pandemic subsides. But for many of us, it won’t. And you think about the way that we talk to each other today compared to the way we did it even eight weeks ago. I mean, it’s very common now to say, ‘How are you holding up? How are you feeling?’ And we can’t lose that. We can’t lose that really as a society, we’ve got to continue to relate to each other. It’s very obvious, I think to almost all of us today that this process has taken an emotional toll on all of us and it’s affecting our emotional health and we all care about each other in that way.
“This is an opportunity for us to reduce that stigma around mental health treatment, and really recognize that how important it is and how it works hand-in-hand with physical health. You can’t have good physical health unless you have good mental health as well. It really bridges that gap and certainly to do it, we hope at a primary care level where we have an opportunity when we’re treating somebody for a medical condition, let’s be sure we’re treating them for their mental health condition the same way. That’s a tremendous opportunity that’s going to come out of this. It’s an opportunity I hope we don’t miss,” Barnett said.
You can watch his full interview in the video below.