In the face of “grim” research around the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on mental health, the Texas Medical Association is telling state lawmakers to respond with robust regulatory support of telehealth and investments to improve all Texans’ access to care.
Austin psychiatrist and telehealth expert Thomas J. Kim, MD, testified for TMA during the Texas Senate Health and Human Services Committee hearing on June 27, when the committee took testimony on its interim charge to examine “the impact of state and federal pandemic policies – including agency guidance, licensing and regulatory actions, and health care industry policies – on patient care and treatment delivery.”
On TMA’s behalf, Dr. Kim gave lawmakers two high-level strategies to consider on the mental health front:
- Codifying a regulatory environment supportive of telehealth; and
- Investing in the health of all Texans.
Speaking to the second strategy, Dr. Kim noted that with nonmedical drivers of health playing a role, supporting good health across the state exceeds the purview of health care. “We know that insecurity, whether it’s housing, education, or access to care, can have devastating consequences,” Dr. Kim said. “Secure access to needed care for all Texans will stem the enormous costs we currently pay for doing too little until a crisis emerges.”
As for the committee’s goal to develop future legislative strategies based on current pandemic impacts, Dr. Kim said the challenge there is “the pandemic is not quite yet over,” noting the state has already reported 1.8 million COVID cases in the first half of 2022.
“There’s a growing body of research around pandemic-related mental illness. Candidly, the conclusions are grim: unprecedented levels of anxiety, depression, and more,” he testified. “After two years of supporting patients, co-workers, family, and friends, I see a mental distress unlike anything that I was trained for. No one was untouched by the pandemic. And as a result, the distress was and is somehow both overwhelming and relentless.”
While questioning Dr. Kim about potential mental health impacts from school shutdown measures during the pandemic, Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham) read recent statistics from the Children’s Hospital Association of Texas on mental health crisis patients, saying there had been at least 350 each month since August 2021 and more than 400 every month since February 2022.
Dr. Kim responded: “I don’t think that we can point with one finger and say, ‘A-ha – that is the reason’ that we are experiencing this pain and this tragedy and these grim, grim, grim statistics. It is one of the reasons why my two strategies in my testimony are broad, forward-thinking, to try and just simply navigate to a better place where the attention is focused on all of us getting better, rather than pointing to a root cause of, ‘That’s why we are experiencing the pain.’”