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Medicare chief Seema Verma reflects on lessons learned from the COVID-19 front lines

July 7, 2020, 6:25 PM UTC

As COVID-19 infections soar to 3 million cases across the U.S. and the death toll crosses the 130,000 mark, Seema Verma, administrator for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and a senior member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, is already looking ahead. 

The proliferation of this deadly pandemic, she said at Fortune’s digital Brainstorm Health conference on Tuesday, has highlighted disparities and issues in the health care industry that need to be addressed. But, she added, it has also pushed the U.S. system to finally take action to do just that. 

Two of those major issues brought to the forefront by COVID-19 include data accessibility and telemedicine.

“Data to me is integral to everything we’re doing here, and the United States’ handling of data is not as robust as it should be,” said Verma who oversees programs that provide health care to more than 130 million Americans and sets safety and quality standards within the health care system.

Americans should be able to easily access their health data on their phones, she said, pointing to those stranded on cruise ships during the early days of the coronavirus crisis who were unable to gain access to their medical records.

Beyond personal data, real-time data and reporting from hospitals also need to be improved to aid in the immediate reallocation of protective personal equipment and medical devices to the emergency centers most in need.

Real-time data about responses to clinical trials for COVID-19 treatments should also be readily available and shared openly across the country, but instead, she said, the data is “trapped in electronic silos.”

One bright spot on the medical landscape has been the increase in telemedicine, where patients chat via video or phone with their doctors instead of coming into the office for appointments. The advancements in telemedicine have saved money, PPE, and the health of countless medical professionals and Americans who don’t have to go into an office and risk exposure to the deadly virus. 

“The genie is out of the bottle when it comes to telehealth,” said Verma. “Long before the pandemic [President Donald] Trump was trying to make it more widely accessible.” The perfection of systems will have long-lasting effects on those who are immunocompromised, live in rural areas or in areas with little access to professional health care. 

Telemedicine is not a panacea, and doctors do sometimes need to see people in person, but it’s a powerful tool that can help to end “long-standing problems in the health care system,” said Verma, calling upon Congress to make telehealth more readily available to those in the Medicare program. 

Verma will meet with White House officials Tuesday to discuss the reopening of schools in the fall, and she told the conference audience that she was optimistic about the possibility.

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