How to Keep Families Healthy

By Justine Handelman

The best approach? A combination of lower health care costs, expanded coverage, and a more equitable system. Here’s why it’s so important.

Throughout my career, I’ve seen health care inevitably become a top-of-mind issue for each new administration and Congress as they begin their work together. It affects everyone regardless of sex, age, income, where you live or how you live. We all need health care at some point. Of course, this past year has been like no other for Americans’ health and for our health care system.

President Joe Biden is acting quickly on much-needed steps to control the COVID-19 pandemic, an effort that hopefully will bring better health, and a return to school, to business activity and to our everyday routines. Though people may disagree on some details of how to accomplish these objectives, these important goals are shared in every region of the country.

Combatting the coronavirus pandemic must be the top priority. We need a continued strong focus on preventing the spread of this virus – especially as it evolves with new variants. It must contain a robust testing program with contact tracing, and an enhanced comprehensive, well-designed plan to ramp up the administering of vaccines to the public. I’m proud that Blue Cross and Blue Shield (BCBS) companies around the country already support the COVID-19 vaccine efforts in their local communities—offering their medically trained personnel to help administer shots, using data and advanced analytics to pinpoint communities where vaccine hesitancy may be problematic, and offering their own facilities, like retail centers, as sites where people can get vaccinated.

The focus on vaccinating millions against COVID-19 also brings into focus an important broader trend in Americans’ attitudes and habits about vaccines.

The pandemic caused Americans to postpone or avoid receiving routine medical care in 2020, resulting in millions of children missing important, routine vaccinations. Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association data shows a 25 percent drop in childhood vaccinations against measles, whooping cough and polio last year, compared to 2019. The data, based on medical claims from millions of BCBS members, shows a dangerous trend that threatens to leave people in communities throughout the U.S. at greater risk of contracting these preventable and highly contagious diseases.

Further, the claims data shows that childhood vaccination completion rates for the full series of all seven childhood vaccines have stalled at around 80 percent between 2016-2019, and that children living in communities with a majority Black or Hispanic population have substantially lower rates of vaccination completion, at 69 and 73 percent, compared with 80 percent among whites. Discrepancies in access to care, affordability, and trust put communities of color at greater risk of contracting preventable diseases.

What this means is not only do we need to do a much better job of increasing the vaccine completion rate, we must also work hard to capture the missed vaccinations. Tough but critical work ahead.

These disturbing trends are emerging at the same time the medical community begins to publicly discuss the very real possibility we may have to vaccinate against the coronavirus every year for perhaps the next decade. .

These and other lessons from the pandemic show us ever more clearly why it’s so important to increase access to health care coverage for all Americans, while addressing inequities in our system.

We can improve health care by relying on three pillars—lowering costs, expanding coverage, and creating a more equitable system—as the path towards a more inclusive health care system and healthier nation. While our health care system is not perfect, it provides a strong foundation to build a better, more equitable system for all. In the ten years since the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was enacted, nearly 20 million people have gained coverage—with the largest drops in the uninsured rate coming among people of color. That alone is huge progress. In fact, today, more than 90 percent of Americans have health insurance through their employers, the ACA, Medicare, and Medicaid.

I’m thrilled that BCBSA is part of a broad new coalition of health care industry partners and groups representing employers that has agreed on specific policies to put the nation on a path to universal coverage, specifically by enhancing the ACA. Many of these proposals already have bipartisan support.

We will also continue to work to promote health equity with specific actions to address the racial health disparities that have been exposed so starkly during the pandemic. That means enacting policies, like the Black Maternal Health Caucus’ “Momnibus” package, aimed at improving the health outcomes of pregnant women and mothers, particularly African American and Native American women, incarcerated women, and female veterans. And it’s imperative that as we distribute the COVID-19 vaccine, there’s a focus on underserved and high-risk communities who may be hesitant to receive it. I feel very strongly that we cannot leave anyone behind.

I’m looking forward to working with the Biden Administration and Congress to improve health care access and affordability for everyone, no matter who you are, where you live or what your health condition may be.

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