As Alaskan communities begin to reopen, with restrictions being lifted on retail stores, medical professionals, gyms, bars, and restaurants, still more than a little uncertainty abounds regarding COVID-19. Many believe it will see a resurgence in the winter, like the Spanish Flu of 1918. Others say it is constantly mutating, making it difficult to create a viable vaccine. With most Alaskans having survived the past several weeks, now is the time to ready ourselves for a resurgence of this pandemic, or the potential for another virus to devastate our way of life.
There are plenty of ways for individuals and families to prepare, from stocking the freezer to buying personal protective equipment. But our state and local governments must also take the lessons learned from the first half of 2020 to double down on the policies that worked and eschew the ones that didn’t.
Throughout these past weeks, we’ve learned that dozens of the government regulations that affect our lives—and have been rolled back or suspended because of COVID-19—were trivial at best and harmful at worst. Prior to the current crisis, hospitals in Alaska had to submit certificates of need to temporarily increase their bed capacity. For now, this requirement is suspended, thankfully. Forcing hospitals to prove their need could be harmful in a crisis, hampering their ability to respond quickly. Reimplementing such a regulation would be misguided when it could spell disaster during a future viral outbreak or in a resurgence of COVID-19.
This, and many other regulatory roll backs (such as suspending recertification requirements for EMTs, suspending the cap on continuing medical education via distance learning, and allowing health care facilities to utilize space for patient care that was not approved for that purpose), works to increase the health care sector’s ability to respond to a crisis quickly and effectively. But these solutions do little to address a core issue in Alaska: the lack of access to individual health care.
During a global pandemic, access to health care is critical, yet Alaskans face two major roadblocks to receiving care: availability and cost. In many communities, medical professionals were already hard to find, and the virus-related shutdowns only made gaining access more difficult, as Alaskans off the road system lost the ability to fly to hubs where medical providers are available. Across Alaska, people pay more for health care than in any other state, with insurance premiums and deductibles so high that paying out of pocket seems reasonable. In fact, my husband and I—after reviewing low-coverage, high-deductible plans that would still cost over $800 per month—decided we would eat healthy, exercise, and pay out of pocket for regular check-ups and unexpected ailments.
While we’re all worried about catching COVID-19, we can’t allow ourselves and our loved ones to overlook other illnesses. Whether we’re suffering from strep throat, anxiety, or anything in between, many of us still need to see medical professionals. Unfortunately, that’s not so easy during government-mandated social distancing. For weeks, doctors’ offices were closed to all non-emergency patients. Even today, my doctor’s office is checking all patients’ temperatures before allowing them into the waiting room. Nurses in the lobby are scrutinizing every symptom—even though a sore throat could just as easily be attributed to spring allergies as COVID-19.
I had the misfortune of falling ill in late March. I was stuck in a tough position. What counts as an emergency? Was I dying? Certainly not. But I did miss four days of work. When I realized I wasn’t improving, I had to take action. Well … my husband convinced me that I needed to see a doctor. It was a Saturday. I was hoping to go back to work on Monday. I needed help immediately.
We found an app called Doctor on Demand. I was able to make an appointment, without insurance, for that Sunday at 10:00 AM. The doctor I saw was in Maine, speaking to me from her home. For $75, I was able to have a video consultation, get prescriptions sent to my pharmacy, and start feeling better. I did all of this with just a cell phone from the comfort of my kitchen. It was like having a doctor make a house call, except no one risked spreading illness.
I don’t actually know if the app and the doctor I saw were operating within Alaska state law. But being able to make an appointment when I needed to, without exposing myself to COVID-19 or anyone else to my sickness, was just what the doctor ordered.
Expanding opportunities for video medical appointments, like the one I had, will lessen our struggle with access to health care in Alaska, by increasing availability and competition, ultimately lowering costs. With these video doctors’ visits, broadly known as telehealth, Alaskans can address ailments before they become emergencies, even under “hunker down” orders. If the government allows licensed medical professionals from other states to operate via video technology in Alaska without getting licensed here, we can reduce burdens on local doctors and hospitals during times of crisis, limit exposure to disease in medical offices, and increase health care access year round.
As we prepare for what the future may bring, expanding telehealth is an important step toward protecting the wellbeing of Alaskans, especially our most vulnerable populations, such as the elderly and those with chronic conditions or mobility issues. In the midst of a global pandemic is no time to ignore health problems, whether large or small. Allowing expanded telehealth opportunities will give Alaskans the ability to better care for themselves under even the most unexpected circumstances.