Steve Manos | Special to Black Voice News

COVID-19 has continued to dominate our lives and the news cycle in California over the past year, and understandably so. The state’s first case was confirmed more than 500 days ago, starting us on a long road of social distancing, stay-at-home orders, and heartbreaking stories of strained hospitals. Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve been one of the hardest-hit states, and we’re only recently beginning to see a light in the distance, as vaccinations become widely available.

However, there’s another healthcare crisis looming that could compromise Californians’ ability to get even basic care: a doctor shortage. In 2017, the University of California San Francisco released a study anticipating that demand for primary care providers in our state would outpace supply by 2030, a problem whose urgency has grown with the COVID-19 pandemic. 

It’s a problem that’s notably large in rural areas. After an already long and difficult winter season, rural areas of California now account for some of the highest COVID-19 infection rates in the entire state. With fewer physicians available to serve the millions of rural Californians, there are real questions about our ability not just to effectively reach patients now, but even after the pandemic has well and truly passed. 

(source: cdc.org)

Veterans are particularly susceptible to the disparities affecting healthcare in rural California. According to the Census Bureau, veterans are more likely than nonveterans to live in rural parts of the state, meaning they end up suffering more than other groups when rural areas can’t access the care that they need. 

We need lawmakers to outline ways to address this growing problem, and thankfully some government agencies are teaming up with private companies to show what we can do. 

For example, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has recently been improving telehealth options for rural veterans who don’t necessarily live near a VA hospital by working with the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), and Philips North America on a program called Accessing Telehealth through Local Area Stations (ATLAS).

The program established sites at local American Legion and VFW posts, meaning that veterans who live in rural parts of California don’t have to travel countless hours for routine visits to the doctor or other basic medical needs. There’s a station located in Los Banos, which is helping to alleviate the burden that results from the recent doctor shortages in the state, while still making healthcare more accessible in the regions most heavily affected by the shortages. 

Collaboration between the government and private companies will be a powerful tool as we address the broader health disparities that affect veterans, rural communities, and other groups that suffer from disparities in access to healthcare, and I hope that California lawmakers will recognize that and work to make more partnerships like this possible. 

We’ve already seen that California’s lawmakers are ready to lead on these issues. Just last year, for example, Representative Mark Takano backed legislation to make online treatment more accessible to veterans. Now, given his influence as chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, I’m confident he sees how much private-public partnerships are helping to address California’s healthcare disparities and gets behind future efforts to make more of those partnerships possible. 

In fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve gotten a glimpse of some of the bigger disparities that make healthcare difficult for Californians to get, and these are lessons that lawmakers should take to heart. Moving forward, we will need targeted solutions that bring private companies and the government closer together to overcome our state’s biggest obstacles. 

Steve Manos is a city councilman in Lake Elsinore, CA.