Priorities include increasing PPE, vaccine development, planning for booster distribution, and permanent use of telehealth
Feb. 18, 2022 (ACP)—The American College of Physicians is offering support and ideas to congressional leaders to help them prepare the American health system now for the next pandemic.
“We are encouraged that Democrats and Republicans are working together to try and improve the country's response to the next pandemic even during a time when our response to the current pandemic has become irrevocably politically charged,” said Jared Frost, ACP senior associate for legislative affairs.
On one front, ACP joined the American Academy of Family Physicians in a Jan. 31 letter to the House Healthy Future Task Force in response to a request for information about pandemic preparedness.
The two societies urged policymakers to “increase PPE [personal protective equipment] production, stabilize the supply chain, and ensure that community-based clinicians are not excluded from PPE distributions from the Strategic National Stockpile.”
In addition, the letter notes that the Strategic National Stockpile only distributed adult-sized PPE during the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving out children: “It is imperative that decisions regarding which products to keep in the Strategic National Stockpile include special populations such as children, pregnant or lactating individuals, and individuals with disabilities.”
In regard to vaccines, the letter urges federal agencies to prioritize the inclusion of pregnant and lactating women in vaccine development and proactively plan for booster distribution. And the letter supports the permanent utilization of telehealth services by community health centers.
ACP is also commending the PREVENT Pandemics Act, bipartisan legislation that aims to strengthen the nation's response to public health emergencies. Among other things, the bill would create a 12-member task force to review the nation's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We strongly believe that it is absolutely essential that the commission include physicians with expertise in pandemic preparedness and response, including primary care physicians who have been on the frontlines of treating patients with COVID-19,” wrote ACP in a Feb. 2 statement to the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP).
In addition, the bill would improve coordination between local health departments and state agencies, support access to mental health and substance use disorder services during public health emergencies and modernize biosurveillance and infectious disease data collection.
“ACP recommends that any uses of technology in the U.S. in the context of pandemic should be demonstrated to be effective, be temporary, and ensure safeguards for privacy and confidentiality are in place,” ACP wrote in the letter. “ACP recommends that physicians and their care teams and patients should be actively involved in the development, testing, and implementation of any public health surveillance technology or application.”
ACP enthusiastically supports provisions in the legislation to reauthorize the Public Health Workforce Loan Repayment Program, recruit and train community health workers, and improve public health emergency response. The bill would also establish grant programs aimed at reducing health disparities.
“ACP believes that policymakers should recognize and address how increases in the frequency and severity of public health crises, including large-scale infectious disease outbreaks such as COVID-19, poor environmental health, and climate change, all disproportionately contribute to health disparities for Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, and other vulnerable persons,” the letter states.
Frost cautions that ACP may not see all of its priorities become law. “Many of ACP's recommendations, such as its support for a task force, collecting information about social drivers of health and making certain the Strategic National Stockpile can effectively respond to future public health emergencies probably have broad consensus,” he said. “However, ACP's recommendations to really address the social drivers of health and finally increase the physician pipeline would probably be too expensive for the HELP Committee to include in the PREVENT Pandemics Act.”
What are the chances that the legislation will pass? “The Senate HELP Committee is working in a bipartisan fashion, and hopefully that means that there's a good chance it moves forward. The fact that there is already a discussion draft is a very good sign,” Frost said. “Whether it gets to the Senate floor is a harder question to answer. The Senate is going to have to use precious floor time for things such as the fiscal year 2022 appropriations omnibus bill, the eventual Supreme Court nomination and possible activity regarding Build Back Better.”
According to Frost, “the conventional wisdom in an election year is that any bigger policy bill such as the PREVENT Pandemics Act would need to be on the floor of the House and Senate for a final passage vote before the August recess. In the fall, both Democrats and Republicans are going to want to be campaigning in their home districts and home states rather than legislating back in Washington, D.C. That means there's about five months left to get this done.”
Whatever happens, ACP will continue urging leaders to learn from the past and prepare in smart and effective ways for the future.