Access to health care is something that should be available to everyone, that is a point which should not be up for debate. However, in Maine, given its large geographic footprint, that access is often impeded by where you live. This is a long-recognized problem and one that has been difficult to address.
Maine already has 10 more hospitals than New Hampshire, a state with a similar population (but much smaller geographic size). Many of our rural hospitals struggle financially to deliver care to relatively small populations. Additionally, it is challenging to employ enough physicians to address geographic needs without enough patients.
We have before us a tremendous opportunity to dramatically increase access to health care in all corners of the state through telehealth. On July 14, Question 1 gives Maine the opportunity to invest $15 million in broadband expansion, which would be matched by other sources for a total of $45 million. Through this expansion of broadband, Maine could simultaneously expand the access to a broad spectrum of health care services offered by physicians throughout the state.
As the pandemic hit Maine back in March, most health care providers in the state closed their doors to non-emergency services. At the same time, across the state, these same health care providers quickly developed the capacity to meet with their patients through a video connection. Harvard Pilgrim Health Care received an average of about 15 telehealth claims a week prior to COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus. That number rose to an average of 1,400 per week from mid-April through late June, the overwhelming majority of which were performed by Maine physicians.
While this expansion of the delivery of health care through telehealth was critically important to both patients and their physicians, as we reviewed the data the disparity of the location of the patients able to benefit was disheartening. The use of telehealth visits per capita in Aroostook, Washington, Somerset and Franklin counties was less than half of that seen in Cumberland, York and Penobscot counties. Assuredly a major factor in this disparity is access to broadband.
While broadband expansion is of critical importance to Maine’s economic growth, I believe it also offers us an opportunity to more equitably deliver health care to all Mainers regardless of what part of the state they call home. Please vote yes on Question 1 on July 14.
Bill Whitmore is the Maine vice president for Harvard Pilgrim Health Care.