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NJ should use budget surplus and rebuild health care to avoid grim post-COVID aftermath

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James Luyster of Pine Beach, an Earth Science teacher at Toms River High School South, is vaccinated by Lindsay Rudorfer, RN of Brick as Toms River teachers and staff begin to receive COVID-19 vaccines at Community Medical Center in Toms River, NJ Monday, March 22, 2021.

Michael L. Diamond
Asbury Park Press

New Jersey should use its budget surplus to help rebuild a health care system that saw its flaws exposed during the pandemic, a report by an advocacy group and trade organization says.

Without changes, the groups say, the state risks being unprepared for the aftermath of the disease: health workers who are burned out; consumers who need access to mental health services; and a widening divide between the rich and the poor.

“Really, our call to action is: You have the community’s support behind you. You have the research. You now have the dollars,” said Linda Schwimmer, president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute, a group trying to improve care and lower the cost. “Let’s do it. Let’s move these action steps forward at this critical time.”

The report, “Emerging from COVID-19: An Action Plan for a Healthier State,” was written by the Health Care Quality Institute and BioNJ, a trade group representing the state’s biopharmaceutical industry.

It was released as the state is in the fourth wave of a pandemic that has killed more than 22,000 New Jerseyans since March 2020 and shined a light on a fragile health care system.

But unlike recent history, the authors say, New Jersey lawmakers have a chance to tap into billions of dollars from a budget surplus and the most recent federal stimulus plan to shore up the industry.

Debbie White, president of the Health Professionals and Allied Employees union representing 14,000 nurses and health care workers, said she welcomed the report.

She said the union’s members have been battered by COVID, left feeling disposable and unprotected — a sign that the state and health care companies were “completely unprepared for this pandemic.”

“These workers were in an environment that was akin to war, and I see signs of PTSD,” White said. “There was so much suffering, so many dying around them, and in the midst of all that, they were unprotected.”

The Health Care Quality Institute and BioNJ interviewed nearly 100 health care industry executives, front-line workers, and consumer advocates.

Their 44-page report paints a picture of a state whose health care industry had identified some of the flaws in the system, but didn’t move fast enough to address them, leaving New Jerseyans ill-prepared for a deadly pandemic.

The state’s health care workers, for example, lacked protective equipment. Its long-term care centers were older, and many lacked infection control expertise. Its public health departments were under-resourced, ranking 41st out of 50 states in expenditures.

And alarms are sounding. Health care workers and consumers alike are feeling the strain of the pandemic on their mental health, but they don’t always have access to therapies, whether it is a counselor or a moment at work to decompress, the report says.

The report makes 24 recommendations that its authors say will help the state get back on its feet.

Among them:

Create a resilient and diverse health care work force. One national poll found 72% of emergency physicians felt burned out, putting pressure on both the state and the health care industry both to recruit more workers from diverse communities and provide them with mental health resources. Embrace innovative care and payment models. New Jersey, for example, should continue to take advantage of technology such as telehealth and make sure providers are reimbursed for the service after the public health emergency ends. And it can promote wearables and apps to help an aging population remain in their homes for ongoing care. Improve access to underserved communities. People of color have been more likely to be diagnosed with COVID and less likely to get vaccinated than white residents. It was a reminder that the state should address systemic issues like poverty that play a role in health outcomes. Revitalize and reorganize the public health infrastructure. New Jersey has 90 local public health departments and 22 local information networks to help identify emergencies. But the state still ranks near the bottom in public health spending. Lawmakers should reassess the state’s public health system.

“We believe that this report will play an instrumental role in strengthening our health care system through innovation and a sustained commitment to address future challenges, and to create a system where all people receive equitable and affordable health care and can live their healthiest lives,” Debbie Hart, president and chief exectuive officer of BioNJ, said.

This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: NJ should use budget surplus and rebuild health care to avoid grim post-COVID aftermath

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