This article originally appeared in the Anchorage Daily News on April 28, 2020.
Quick and early action in Alaska has the state doing better than much of the Lower 48 in the number of COVID-19 cases and severity of the crisis, but the threat is just as real and the impact on our daily life and local economy is something all Americans are feeling.
At a time of so much uncertainty and fear, and with so many restrictions, it is important that our leaders put forth policies that provide flexibility and options for Alaskans and their families — especially with regard to health care.
Alaska’s remoteness is both a blessing and a curse during a pandemic. While it has certainly helped with social distancing efforts, it also makes it difficult to seek necessary medical care — coronavirus-related or not. But technological advances in the medical field have made it possible to seek many types of care without exposing yourself or others—from the comfort of your own home. State leaders can make a tangible impact during this public health crisis and beyond by expanding these opportunities and removing needless restrictions on telehealth in Alaska.
There has been some progress, by way of waiving requirements for initial face-to-face exams by telehealth providers. This will allow patients to be seen promptly and safely and will ensure that they can seek the care they need without putting themselves or others at risk. But more can and should be done, as telehealth is particularly important for our vulnerable elderly and chronically ill populations, those in remote locations, those with limited access to transportation, and individuals with disabilities—regardless of a global pandemic.
Alaska should now expand the list of who can provide services via telehealth by allowing providers who have good-standing licenses in other states to supplement Alaska-licensed providers, a move that would give Alaskans increased access to specialists from across the country. This would also give remote communities in the state better access to general healthcare services and providers. Geographic restrictions should not limit someone’s access to quality care and specialized services.
For those Alaska providers who are on the front lines of the pandemic, Alaska has taken a step in the right direction by suspending continuing medical education (CME) requirements. But let’s truly reward these medical professionals for risking life and limb. Alaska’s state leaders should award CME credits for time spent battling COVID-19.
Lastly, a minor change should be made to Senate Bill 241, which allows licensing boards to respond to the crisis by expediting licensure for several different fields, from medicine to utilities. The problem, however, is that these decisions are left to the licensing boards — creating another hurdle. State leaders should take this bill one step further and simply remove licensing restrictions for Alaskan professionals who already have licenses in good standing from other states. Doing so would not only ensure there are enough providers to respond to the public’s needs, but it would keep many Alaskans working. As unemployment rates continue to climb, states need to be doing all they can to keep citizens collecting a paycheck and providing for their families.
As this outbreak continues to wreak havoc on the country’s health care system and economy, social distancing and following government recommendations are key to curb the outbreak and get Alaska back on track. But health needs beyond COVID-19 still need to be addressed. State leaders can aid in these efforts by expanding flexibility and taking advantage of innovation and technological advancements in the medical field. By removing barriers, allowing for more providers, and helping patients seek care while maintaining distance, Alaska can save lives while ensuring the state is set for success after the COVID-19 pandemic ends.