1. Health New England turns 35 amid pandemic challenges (Guest viewpoint)

    Health New England turns 35 amid pandemic challenges (Guest viewpoint)

    2020 was a year like no other. It brought health challenges, economic uncertainty and social justice issues that remain top priorities today. It underscored the need for us to work together as a community to take care of each other.

    At Health New England, our mission is to improve the health and lives of the people in our communities by providing outstanding service, delivering superior value and acting as a leading corporate citizen. This mission serves as our foundation and guides us in navigating the complex changes needed to serve our members, our employees and our community during the pandemic and prepare for a post-COVID future.

    The pandemic changed the way patients receive medical care. In 2020, there was a sharp rise in the use of telehealth services. Our members had over 300,000 telehealth visits, up from just 900 visits in 2019. Telehealth is becoming a routine mode of treatment that will continue to grow in both the number of visits as well as the scope of care.

    The effects of the pandemic also heightened awareness of our mental health needs. Isolation, economic uncertainty, substance use and anxiety are more widespread. Behavioral health professionals are successfully using virtual formats to deliver care, improving access for these important services.

    COVID-19 emphasized the need for proactive management of chronic conditions to improve health outcomes. This past year, Health New England launched a new diabetes solution and a management program for kidney disease. We will continue to focus on prevalent health conditions and collaborate with health care providers to offer innovative solutions that keep our members as healthy as possible.

    The pandemic has brought into sharp focus the importance of health care coverage. It is essential to evaluate options and find the right plan to fit your individual financial and health needs. At Health New England, we made it safe and easy to connect with us and learn about plan options through online learning sessions, additional call center staff and improved web tools.

    The impact of COVID-19 and related economic downturn has increased enrollments in public health programs like Medicare and Medicaid, and more people are buying health insurance on their own. For 2021, we have more plan options at affordable costs for the individual market available to purchase on our website, healthnewengland.org.

    In addition, we made benefit adjustments to make it easier for our members to get needed care. These adjustments include no out-of-pocket costs for COVID-19 diagnostic testing ordered by a medical professional or for telehealth visits for all conditions, allowing early refills of prescriptions and, more recently, no out-of-pocket costs for COVID-19 vaccines.

    2020 was a year that uprooted business as usual, from the pandemic shaping a new normal to the emergence of an important social justice movement gaining historic momentum across the country.

    As a health plan, we serve and employ people of all races, genders, sexual orientations, religions, and levels of ability. Our work to create an environment of trust and equity, address health disparities, and advance solutions that improve health and life quality issues impacted by social determinants, including racism, continues in 2021 and beyond.

    The pandemic has increased financial and resource demands on our community partners and charitable organizations. In response, Health New England expanded its community benefits support and provided an additional $300,000 in grants for COVID relief efforts throughout Western Massachusetts to help residents with access to food, mental health care, childcare, housing and basic needs.

    Additionally, our teams collaborated with health care providers, including Baystate Health. Health New England clinical professionals including doctors, nurses, pharmacists and care coordinators assisted at the hospital, freeing up Baystate Health staff for direct patient care. Equally important, as the hospital was impacted by surges of new patients, we adopted innovative practices to help members get home more quickly, freeing up beds for others needing hospital care.

    While it is fitting to reflect on the year that was, we look ahead with optimism to 2021. This is a special year for Health New England, marking our 35th anniversary of serving members. In that time, our health plan has grown to cover over 170,000 residents of Western and Central Massachusetts and northern Connecticut.

    As the local health plan, we pride ourselves on the meaningful difference we make in the lives of our members. We are grateful for the learnings of the past year and look forward to 35 more years of success in our dynamic and changing health care environment.

    Richard Swift is president and CEO of Health New England. To learn more about Health New England, go online to healthnewengland.org.

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