By Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr.
National Newspaper Publishers Association
Over the past year and a half, New Jerseyans of all backgrounds have struggled to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic and economic insecurity. Friends and family got sick, and tragically, some passed away from the COVID-19 virus. Data collected in June and July shows an estimated 1.5 million New Jerseyans are having difficulty covering the most basic household expenses like food, rent or mortgage, medical bills, car payments, or student loans. Worse yet, hundreds of thousands of our community members rely on unemployment benefits to support themselves and their families.
Like crises before, the most impacted in our state are Black Americans and Hispanics. Black and Hispanic residents in New Jersey have been the most vulnerable to COVID-19, serving as critical frontline and essential workers.
The healthcare system has long been inequitable – low-income individuals, people of color, and those without means, time, or money to travel to a physical facility, face significant challenges in getting the care they need. This situation worsened as the world shut down last year.
Early in the pandemic, Governor Murphy quickly signed Public Health Emergency orders, expanding access to telehealth services. This helped people with chronic conditions get the medical care they need. The COVID-19 pandemic proved that telehealth could provide relief to an overburdened health system. This had a large impact on medically underserved communities who were now able to access healthcare at a location that suited their needs without risking exposure to COVID-19.
But now it looks like the Governor might be on the path to taking this access to healthcare away. If he does, Governor Murphy will be the first state executive in the country to limit access to virtual care, despite saying he wants to increase access and promote equity.
Even before the pandemic, it was clear that telehealth could have a positive impact on Black Americans and Hispanics. The ability to easily see a provider to manage chronic conditions or when something comes up, saves lives and saves money. Seeing a medical provider in-person can take an average of two hours away from other responsibilities and can be a large burden to hourly employees, and childcare providers, among others. Keeping telehealth accessible can reduce frustrating interactions with the healthcare system and decrease the time patients need to spend away from work and their families.
Despite the proven power of telehealth to increase healthcare access in our community, Governor Murphy has refused to sign legislation into law that would make these services permanent in New Jersey. At a time of significant surges in COVID-19 cases and deaths, now is not the time to consider limiting this lifeline. Rather, this is the right time to learn from the past year and a half and permanently expand healthcare access to those who need it most.
To their credit, the New Jersey Senate and House recently acted so patients could keep seeing their providers in a way that works best for them. The bill, A4179/S2559, requires that doctors and nurses are paid fairly regardless of how they deliver care, just as they have done throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. It also ensures that patients can keep seeing providers with the types of telehealth visits that work best for them.
Without access to meaningful healthcare through telehealth, our communities will continue to be devastated by this pandemic. The time is now for Governor Murphy to act in the best interests of the community he claims to serve and sign this telehealth bill into law, ensuring access to healthcare remains protected for medically-underserved, and historically excluded populations.