Greater investment in New Jersey’s public health infrastructure and workforce development. Additional focus on addressing the underlying causes of health inequities. Rethinking how to pay for things like elder care and telehealth and even the current home-rule nature of the local health system.
Those are among the two dozen recommendations in “Emerging from COVID-19: An Action Plan for a Healthier State,” a report released Wednesday by BioNJ, the state’s life sciences trade association, and the New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute, a nonprofit seeking to improve health safety, outcomes and affordability.
The action plan seeks to address long-standing issues within New Jersey’s health system that were further exposed by the pandemic, including caregiver shortages, structural and operational challenges at nursing homes, a fractured and insufficient behavioral health network and a fragmented, isolated and under-resourced public health operation. In 2019, New Jersey ranked last in terms of federal public health funding, according to Trust for America’s Health.
In addition, the plan highlights the need to address underlying social issues, like poverty and poor housing, that have an outsize impact on individual health and equitable health outcomes. “The pandemic really brought a lot of (these racial inequities) to light and there is just so much more that needs to be done,” said Debbie Hart, president and CEO of BioNJ, noting that Black and Hispanic communities suffered with an outsize burden under COVID-19.
The action plan also urges the state to build on some of the changes driven by the pandemic, like the enormous expansion in telehealth use, which Hart said became a critical tool for pharmaceutical research studies. But more must be done to ensure telemedicine is accessible to everyone and is effective in delivering quality care, she notes.
The plan’s recommendations reflect input from more than 60 stakeholders — including health care providers, insurance companies, government regulators and advocates — who spent hours discussing their COVID-19 experience and sharing thoughts on reforms, the sponsors said. Hart said the BioNJ board was looking to compile some of the lessons learned during the crisis and partnered with the quality institute last fall to convene the work group.
“We tried to really lean into what everyone was saying, but also push and get consensus on these recommendations,” said Linda Schwimmer, the quality institute’s president and CEO. That consensus “was important to us because it makes (the recommendations) actionable,” she said.
The right time for action
Some of the recommendations — like a call for unified state licensing of behavioral and physical health facilities — received state support years ago but have yet to be implemented. Others — like allowing some health care providers to take on new responsibilities — have long been the subject of disputes between professional groups. And the suggestion to increase collaboration and resource sharing among the state’s municipal and county public health offices challenges New Jersey’s historic nature as a home-rule state.
But Hart and Schwimmer said there is a now a passion and commitment to change that did not previously exist. There is also research supporting these concepts and “billions of dollars” in federal coronavirus relief the state expects to collect, Schwimmer said, and together these factors make it the right time to advance the plan.
“It’s definitely not an accident we’re releasing this now,” Schwimmer said, noting the state has also experienced…