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Updated: June 10, 2022

'We can't go back': Maine health care leaders talk of pandemic's tough lessons, silver linings

Four panelists on stage sitting down Photo / Renee Cordes From left, Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services with panelists Dr. Jonathan Harvey of Martin's Point Healthcare, Dr. Andrew Mueller of MaineHealth and Charlie Therrien of Northern Light Mercy Hospital.

At the start of the pandemic, when many non-urgent health care services shut down overnight, Northern Light Health lost around 70% of its business, according to vice president Charlie Therrien.

Since then, Northern Light's bounce-back "is literally taking years, and we are still in the recovery period associated with that," Therrien, who also is president of Northern Light Mercy Hospital in Portland, told a Mainebiz forum in Portland on Thursday.

Health care is not built to catch up with a sharp rise in demand, Therrien said. He also described the added challenge of today's labor shortages, adding that "every day we are working to improve access." 

Therrien was joined by fellow panelists Dr. Andrew Mueller, CEO of MaineHealth, and Dr. Jonathan Harvey, chief medical officer at Martin's Point Health Care, in a discussion moderated by Jeanne Lambrew, commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

From worker shortages to worker burnout, panelists addressed challenges they face as both employers and health care providers, along with some of the weaknesses in the health care system brought to light during the pandemic.

Like Northern Light, MaineHealth is still struggling to catch up as demand for previously deferred services comes back, Mueller said.

“We have built really robust systems,” he said, “but they weren't resilient, and for us to really think about what our communities need for the future, we've got to make that transition."

Mueller also said that while the pandemic has been especially hard on front-line health care workers at Maine's largest private employer, many are experiencing the worst part of it now. He likened the situation to what soldiers go through around 18 months after returning from combat.

For that reason, MaineHealth has invested heavily to expand employee benefits around behavioral and mental health, Mueller said. He also said that expanding the workforce "here at home" is becoming more important now that MaineHealth and other health care employers are competing for talent in a national marketplace.

Mueller also spoke of the need to build a more diverse workforce and become more flexible in employment arrangements, such as a "gig economy" that might be attractive for nurses.

Along similar lines, Harvey of Martin's Point said that talent pipelines are needed in a number of provider roles, adding that improving access for patients won't be possible "until we get the right people on the job."

'No going back’

Integrating behavioral and mental health services into primary care and figuring out where telehealth goes from here are also things that all three providers are trying to navigate, in a sector forever changed by the pandemic. Panelists said this could be a silver lining.

"There is no going back," Mueller said. "The door has slammed behind us, we can't go back to the way we've done things before ... I think the future can be bright [and] we have a greater opportunity to do things here [in Maine] than probably anywhere else."

Jeanne Lambrew at podium
Photo / Renee Cordes
Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew giving her opening remarks at Thursday’s event.

Offering a policy perspective, Lambrew cited increased interest in health insurance provided as another silver lining. "If we can capture the moment of trying to make health care more affordable, that could make coverage more affordable and strengthen our health care system in Maine ... I'm cautiously optimistic on that as well," she said.

The Mainebiz Health Care Forum, which took place Thursday morning at the Holiday Inn By the Bay, was sponsored by Northern Light Health, Pierce Atwood, United Healthcare and the University of New England. Around 125 people registered for the event.

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