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Opinion | Putting the care back in healthcare

The pandemic made evident the many gaps in Alabama’s healthcare system and it’s time for us to fix those gaps now.

(STOCK)

Ever so slowly, it appears that the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic may finally be behind us.

Of course, it’s not going to magically disappear, and we must still remain vigilant and cautious. Yet just a few short years ago, no one could have imagined that 1.3 million of our fellow Alabamians would become infected with the virus, or that 19,000 of our loved ones and neighbors would pass away. I remember the images of full hospitals forced to treat people on ventilators in overcrowded hallways.

I remember the long lines to get N95 masks or vaccinations. Mostly, I remember the determined looks and heartfelt compassion that I saw in the faces of exhausted doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals that refused to let the virus win. Especially during the worst of it, I watched them, regardless of the obstacles or emotional toll, put the care back in healthcare.

That’s why I sponsored House Joint Resolution, HJR301, which applauds and commends the bravery, diligence, and tremendous personal sacrifices made by our front-line health care professionals throughout the COVID-19 crisis. Every day, they put their own lives at risk to help save countless lives and comfort grieving families. They were the very definition of heroism and benevolence as they bravely put others first, regardless of the peril they faced themselves.

Honestly, this official legislative “thank you” is the very least we can do for them. I say this because many in the medical field not only feel burned-out but may soon leave the profession altogether. According to a recent report by the American Medical Association, one out of five physicians are considering changing careers.

Nurses tell a similar story and cite concerns regarding continual understaffing, feeling unappreciated by their employers, and the ongoing pressure of the pandemic on their own health and mental well-being. If such an exodus were to occur in Alabama, it would literally cripple our already fragile healthcare system, especially in rural areas – including my district.

In the last decade, we’ve seen eleven of our rural hospitals close, primarily due to our state’s failure to expand Medicaid. Often, people forget that when an individual has no insurance and uses the emergency room in place of a primary care doctor, that it’s the hospital that has to foot the unpaid bill.

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However, in many rural and poor communities, people feel like they have no other choice to get the care they need. In many cases, even if they had insurance, there may not be a primary care physician locally available. To put this in perspective, 62 of Alabama’s 67 counties face shortages in primary care physicians and nurses. That’s why I said previously that a “thank you” alone won’t suffice. We, too, need to put the care back in healthcare by focusing our time and more resources into recruiting and retaining medical professionals throughout the state.

The bottom line is that our rural communities need more doctors and clinics. We need to make sure that everyone has health insurance and the opportunity to receive regular, preventative care. Not only would it save lives, but it would also ensure that hospital emergency rooms are being used for actual emergencies. We need to continue our efforts to expand telemedicine and reduce the costs of prescription drugs. That’s how we can show we care about healthcare.

Throughout the pandemic, we saw firsthand how disparities in access to affordable, quality healthcare affected hospitalization and mortality rates. That’s why poor and underserved communities were hit the hardest by the virus. However, in spite of unforeseen challenges and scarce resources, medical professionals rose to confront the crisis every single day. From the doctors to the cleaning personnel that sterilized the ICU beds, during the darkest days of this pandemic, they put the care back in healthcare and went above and beyond when we needed it the most. Today, we owe them our sincere gratitude because they exemplified selfless service and courage.

Rather than just saying “thank you”, we need to show them that we care by our actions, not just our words. The pandemic made evident the many gaps in Alabama’s healthcare system and it’s time for us to fix those gaps now. That’s putting the care back in healthcare.

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