Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont are outliers — in a good way.
Even as COVID-19 surges across much of the country and we see new records for daily infections, northern New England — through a combination of smart policy decisions and good fortune — has avoided the worst of the public health catastrophe.
At least so far.
The coronavirus doesn’t really care about what happened yesterday, so continued vigilance is necessary to make sure that our communities don’t suffer the fate of places like Boston, New York and now Houston and Phoenix.
While Maine’s rates of active cases and hospitalizations have stabilized or fallen, the damage done to our health care system will take enormous effort to repair.
And there is a significant risk of a secondary health care crisis as many people have delayed or canceled wellness visits with their health care providers, trips to the emergency department and treatment for chronic conditions.
Taken with the increased costs of fighting COVID-19 and the decline in other patient visits, Maine’s hospitals and health care providers are in significant financial peril.
As a member of Gov. Janet Mills’ Economic Recovery Committee, one of our first and immediate recommendations is for the state to urge people to see their doctors and to take care of their health.
Cancer, diabetes and mental health issues didn’t disappear when COVID-19 began spreading through our communities.
But there’s more that needs to be done – both at the federal and state level – to help health care providers and the families they serve.
With significant job losses, and the loss of health care that goes with it, more than 300,000 Mainers are now relying upon Medicaid for their health insurance coverage, which is adding new strain to providers and to the state.
The U.S. Senate and the Trump administration can help by increasing the Medicaid matching rate consistent with the HEROES Act, which has already passed in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The federal government can also take additional steps to help by increase the matching payments for Medicaid expansion coverage and ensure access for a longer period of time to help states that are experiencing increased demand for coverage, and withdraw the Medicaid Fiscal Accountability Regulation (MFAR) financing rule, a regulation that will damage healthcare finances as they try to recover from COVID-19.
The bipartisan National Governors Association has urged Congress to adopt substantial additional increases in Medicaid funding, keep them in place until the labor market recovers, and increase the matching dollars for people covered through Medicaid expansion.
Across the country and in Maine, Medicaid programs have been responding to the pandemic by providing additional coverage for testing for COVID-19, more telehealth services (an area in which Maine leads), and more options for home- and community-based services.
Medicaid was designed for this moment — and this kind of crisis. Through proactive action by the U.S. Congress, it can support critical access to health care for many struggling families, help to stabilize Maine’s health care providers, including hospitals, and reduce the risk to Maine’s budget, which could help to avoid other paralyzing cuts in employment and programs.
Right now, the debate about increased federal support for Medicaid is in the U.S. Senate. It’s my hope that Sen. Susan Collins will use her influence to support increased Medicaid funding, and Sen. Angus King will continue his support, as a way to protect the health of thousands of Maine families and to help struggling hospitals and health care providers.
The COVID-19 storm is not over. Now is the time to strengthen our health care system for the crisis we face today and the one we expect right down the road.
With increased support for Medicaid, we have the chance to save lives, save jobs and ensure that Maine people have access to health care.
Barbara Crowley is a retired pediatrician and healthcare administrator who resides in Manchester, Maine.