The status quo is the most powerful force in politics, but when something does change, then there’s a powerful new status quo that keeps the old one from coming back.
Such is the case with how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed health care and education, which will play out as state legislators meet these next few months in Little Rock.
For example, Arkansas long had taken a relatively go-slow approach regarding telemedicine, which is when doctors provide care to patients by phone or video.
Then came the pandemic. In March, Gov. Asa Hutchinson issued an executive order allowing doctors and patients to establish a relationship without a face-to-face meeting, and also allowing health care providers to be reimbursed for the service.
Now that patients have grown accustomed to being served without going to the doctor’s office and sitting in the waiting room – and doctors have grown accustomed to being paid for it – it’s unlikely the state will go back. After 10 months, this is the new status quo.
Sen. Cecille Bledsoe, R-Rogers, whose husband is a physician and whose son is Arkansas’ surgeon general, has been one of the advocates for the go-slow approach in the past.
She still wants to ensure doctors providing telemedicine are board-certified and licensed in Arkansas. However, she said she has become more open to it because, “There are just so many ways that telemedicine has been a blessing to people.” Those include senior citizens who can be treated safely from home, and truck drivers who rarely are at home.
The pandemic also will alter the debate about medical professionals’ scopes of practice – in other words, the care they are allowed to provide. Professions like nurse practitioners and pharmacists typically want to provide a service reserved for doctors, and then doctors resist, and it becomes a turf war. In 2019, lawmakers voted to let optometrists perform minor eye surgeries. Ophthalmologists resisted and then tried to enact a ballot initiative that failed because of signature collection issues.
But there aren’t not enough doctors in Arkansas, especially in certain parts of the state, whereas there might be a pharmacist or nurse practitioner. As the pandemic has reminded us, care competently provided by a trained professional who’s not a doctor is often as good, and certainly better than no care at all.
In other words, doctors probably will be playing defense this legislative session against other professions, when they choose to do so.
Just as health care will be forever changed by the pandemic, so will be schools. Almost all of the state’s public school students spent the last part of the 2020 spring semester at home. Educators were forced to completely change their instructional model for almost 500,000 students over a few days’ time. That’s a remarkable achievement we all should recognize the next time we’re tempted to bash schools.
Families had a choice about whether their children would be educated in person or at home this year. In December, Education Secretary Johnny Key said 22.3 percent of Arkansas students were studying remotely, while 13.5 percent were being educated through a hybrid model. He also noted that some parents will insist on continuing to educate their children this way once the pandemic is over. The state is making plans to accommodate them. Parents, after all, have other choices.
We’ll see what kind of legislative changes, if any, will help provide that extra flexibility, but one thing is certain: We’re not going back, even if it’s not completely obvious where we are going in the future.
One good thing about the past 10 months is that they’ve loosened things up. They’ve shown us how we can use technology we’ve been keeping on the shelf while we’ve been driving to visit the out-of-town doctor or to attend a class. Now we know we don’t have to drive so much.
How will that change our lives permanently? It’s not clear. We’re still creating a new status quo.
What is clear is that, in certain ways, it’s no longer the old one.
Email Steve Brawner at brawner firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.