By: Laura Summers
Note: The opinions expressed are those of the author alone and do not reflect an institutional position of the Gardner Institute. We hope the opinions shared contribute to the marketplace of ideas and help people as they formulate their own INFORMED DECISIONS™.
I recently had an opportunity to sit down with a group of health care experts and ask them what they thought the key issues the state and Utah’s health care systems will be focusing on in 2021, besides COVID-19. I was thinking about health care issues that maybe got swept to the side in 2020 but would re-emerge as we “hopefully” return to some normalcy in 2021.
Interestingly, the answer had less to do with anything “besides” COVID-19 and everything to do with COVID-19. The recurring theme during this conversation was that 2021 would be a time for the state and Utah’s health care systems to proactively address both the direct and indirect health care issues that emerged from the pandemic. I briefly outline five examples below; however, there are numerous other issues related to health care, health care access, and health care affordability that could be included in this list.
First is a focus on encouraging individuals to access preventive and primary care―care that many people may have delayed in 2020 (e.g., dental care, immunizations, cancer screenings, etc.). Unfortunately, this pent-up need for care may have resulted in some missed early diagnoses, leading to health conditions that are harder to treat, manage, or sadly lead to premature death.
Second is understanding and treating individuals experiencing ongoing complications from COVID-19. The long-term health effects of COVID-19 are still largely unknown, but there is concern that some individuals could have lasting health needs.
Third, the state and Utah’s health care systems must attend to the mental and behavioral health needs among Utah’s adults and children that emerged or were exacerbated during COVID-19. For example, some data suggest that the share of U.S. adults experiencing anxiety disorder symptoms has quadrupled during the pandemic, increasing from roughly 8% in 2019 to over 30% in 2020. As of November 23, 2020, 38.0% of Utahns reported having anxiety disorder symptoms.
Fourth is ensuring sufficient resources to deal with these needs. Addressing ongoing COVID-19 health issues as well as a pent-up demand for care could place increased burdens on Utah’s already strained physical, mental, and behavioral health systems.
Fifth is addressing the racial/ethnic, income, and regional disparities in health and health care that existed before the pandemic, but were elevated due to COVID-19. Addressing health care access and affordability will be vital to ensuring people can receive necessary care for ongoing COVID-19 and other health issues. This could include transitioning to value-based care and other solutions that lower health care costs while increasing access and maintaining quality of care.
No one could have predicted COVID-19 would be the primary health care issue in 2020, but I think we can accurately predict that 2021 will be a time for change. We have a new federal administration, and a new state administration, which means a new set of health care priorities. However, given the immense direct and indirect impacts of the pandemic, it is unlikely these priorities will focus on anything “besides” the impacts of COVID-19 for some time to come.
Laura Summers is the senior health care analyst at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.
 U.S. Census Bureau, Household Pulse Survey, 2020; National Center for Health Statistics, National Health Interview Survey, 2019.