Blue Cross Blue Shield CEO on mask restrictions, vaccine hesitancy, and behavioral health

by Roby Brock ([email protected]) 1,541 views 

Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield CEO Curtis Barnett said the state’s largest health insurance company is supportive of the governor’s new call for a COVID-19 pandemic emergency and a special session to loosen mask-wearing restrictions in public schools.

“We’re very supportive of what the governor outlined this week. I think what it does, it puts our priority clearly where it needs to be, which is on our children,” Barnett said in a Talk Business & Politics interview.

On Thursday, Gov. Asa Hutchinson declared a new pandemic emergency as the Delta variant of COVID-19 has spiked cases across the state. Hutchinson also said he would ask lawmakers in a special session to address a new law prohibiting mask mandates. He wants to loosen the restriction to allow local school boards to make a decision on the issue with regards to children under the age of 12, who do not qualify for a vaccine.

“The biggest concern that we’re hearing from all of our stakeholders, is around that. So, we’re very supportive of an effort to move forward, to put more local control with regard to mask mandates. I feel like that’s the appropriate place to be,” he added.

Barnett’s company has been a huge catalyst in the effort to improve Arkansas’ vaccination rates surrounding COVID-19. The state has seen improving vaccination numbers as the Delta variant has surged through the state, but Arkansas is still below 50% vaccinated and far from herd immunity.

Resistance across most demographics has health officials scrambling to find any incentives or persuasion that may work.

“I don’t know if there’s one magic pill,” Barnett said. “A big part of our focus has been really working with the Arkansas Minority Health Commission and going into, especially some of these underserved areas… We know that we just have to continue to work the way we have, do everything we can to overcome. I think the medical community, in particular, is key to that.”

Barnett said there was a big drop in requests for vaccine events a couple of weeks ago, but that is picking back up. It may be too little, too late, but the effort is worthwhile.

“We feel like the tide is turning. Is it turning fast enough? No, we don’t feel like it is, but we’ve just got to continue to push as hard as we can,” he said.

Blue Cross Blue Shield’s Blue & You Foundation for a Healthier Arkansas announced two weeks ago it would invest $5.2 million into several behavioral health initiatives across Arkansas.

The aim of the grants is to expand the behavioral workforce, remove barriers to care, and help build lifelong habits that will positively impact mental health.

“When I use the term behavioral health, I’m talking about mental health conditions, like depression, like anxiety, as well as substance use disorders, like opioid and alcohol addiction. So we’re talking about that full range of services that make up behavioral health. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that we’re in the middle of a crisis, a behavioral health crisis,” Barnett said.

“The pandemic has certainly accelerated that, especially we’ve seen rates of anxiety, depression, substance use really skyrocket during the pandemic. One in four U.S. adults suffer from a behavioral health condition. About 60% of those do not receive care in a given year. Arkansas, our rates of anxiety and depression are well above the national rates,” he said.

The $5.2 million will be shared by UAMS, Arkansas Children’s Hospital, AR Connect program, Arkansas State University, the University of Arkansas, and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Barnett said the money will be impactful in a targeted way.

“The needs are great, there’s no question about that, but, that’s part of the reason that we also decided to take the approach that we did,” he said.

There are three main areas that Barnett said the grant money will focus:

  • Prevention and early intervention;
  • Integration with physical medicine; and
  • Addressing the stigma of behavioral health issues.

“Stigma is often the greatest barrier to getting behavioral healthcare. We want to normalize the conversation around behavioral healthcare and get people to recognize both those who may be suffering from a condition, but also the greater public to realize, that it’s not just a personal weakness, it is a disease that needs to be diagnosed, it needs to be respected, and it needs to be treated,” he said.

Watch Barnett’s full interview in the video below.