OP-ED: Leaders must work together to address the disparities that impact health and wellness amid the COVID-19 pandemic

By Dan Loepp

In striking fear and taking many lives around the world, the COVID-19 health crisis has united people across countries, races and ethnicities like no event in recent memory. And yet, as the virus continues to wreak havoc and devastate communities, we’re now seeing how its impact is far deadlier for some across the nation.

This is especially true for African Americans, who make up 14 percent of Michigan’s population and yet account for 40 percent of deaths related to COVID-19.

We know that lack of insurance or under insurance, lack of access to health care are just some of the contributing factors that contribute to ongoing troubling health and healthcare disparities.

Additionally, social factors such as environment and living conditions, lack of transportation, and food insecurity can all exacerbate health conditions. For instance, the inability to access healthy meals can worsen a person’s health, while being unable to travel to see a doctor or pay for medical visits can magnify chronic health problems and lead to emergencies or even death.

While the harm of COVID-19 is tragic and impacts everyone, we, as business and community leaders, must do more to reduce the social conditions that contribute to these troubling and unacceptable inequities that have become magnified during this health crisis.

For more than 80 years, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan has been committed to improving the health of all Michigan residents, and we have long worked to address health and health care disparities that impact minorities and vulnerable populations.

Four years ago, we implemented a cross-functional Health Disparities Action Team to create a coordinated approach, asking the right questions in the right way to ensure the needs of our diverse members are being met.

Responding to COVID-19 crisis, we developed a toolkit with resources and links; created informational materials targeted at minority populations; and leveraged the faith-based organizations with which we partner to distribute information to their congregants.

We’re broadening our efforts to include connecting members to physicians, providing implicit

bias education and supporting community-based organizations to address food insecurity, while partnering with the Health Endowment Fund and other foundations to enhance telehealth services, a key strategy for expanding access to care.

We remain the largest private donor to Michigan’s free clinics, providing free or low cost medical, dental and mental health care for safety net programs for the uninsured and underinsured.

These efforts are even more necessary now amid the pandemic.

Some of the steps we’ve taken recently include removing barriers to access to needed testing, such as waiving all member copays, deductibles and coinsurance for COVID-19 testing and treatments. Dealing with the effects of COVID-19 are frightening enough, and we don’t want members worrying about costs, too. And we’re covering the full cost of medically necessary laboratory tests to diagnose COVID-19 infection.

We’re also providing no-cost telehealth medical and behavioral services so our members can easily see a doctor or therapist safely from their homes using their phone, computer or other device. This breaks down the barrier of transportation and also alleviates the strain on frontline medical workers who are grappling with the increased COVID-19 cases in hospitals.

And we recently announced a partnership with Wayne State University, the Wayne State University Physician Group and ACCESS to expand a COVID-19 mobile testing program to include free testing for older adults and their caregivers. The partnership launched at Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit’s East Warren/Cadieux neighborhood, where we are investing $5 million to help inclusive neighborhood development through Detroit’s Strategic Neighborhood Fund and Affordable Housing Leverage Fund.

The funding covers testing supplies and operations costs for mobile units to test for COVID-19 at nursing homes, care facilities, churches and other sites throughout Detroit and the region. That’s important because we know that COVID-19 has hit nursing homes particularly hard in Michigan, and especially in Detroit where the disease has been found in every nursing home.

These are just the beginnings of our efforts to break down the social barriers in healthcare during the COVID-19 pandemic. And we’ll soon be announcing additional programs and partnerships because we are committed to ensuring, as we have for more than 80 years, that everyone has access to quality, affordable health care.

We encourage more leaders to join us in this fight to reduce the inequities that permeate our nation, especially during this public health emergency. We are truly all in this together, and our nation will only emerge from this crisis and slow the pandemic by ensuring we are helping everyone.

Dan Loepp is President and CEO for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan

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