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Column: COPN Program Helps Virginia Meet Community Needs in a Crisis

This article originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch

By Christopher K. Peace and Rosalyn R. Dance

We’ve learned difficult lessons this past year as the pandemic reminded us of the importance of planning ahead and resource investment during stable times, so we’re prepared for the unexpected.

That especially is true for our health care system, which has protected all of us during the worst pandemic of our lifetime.

Although COVID-19 continues to present unique challenges, Virginia is fortunate that our health system infrastructure rapidly can adjust to effectively respond to increased demand for hospital beds, staffing challenges, testing and other resources to meet community needs in a crisis.

Virginia’s Certificate of Public Need (COPN) program is a cornerstone of that system. It ensures that health care resources and facilities that provide essential services are distributed across the commonwealth so all people can access critical care when they need it.

For years now, COPN has faced opposition from special interests lobbying to repeal the program, promising it will improve Virginia’s health care system. Those promises are hollow because COPN repeal would weaken our health care system and harm vulnerable people.

Thirty-five states including Virginia have some version of COPN laws and there’s a reason for that — they work. Virginia’s effective COVID-19 response proves that point.

COPN repeal would end state oversight for proposed new health care facilities and services, a process that reinforces our statewide health care system, which helped Virginia weather COVID-19 better than many states.

Without COPN, Virginia would be ill-equipped to battle the current pandemic and future ones. Let us explain why.

When the commonwealth shut down this past spring in response to the pandemic, many health care facilities that don’t provide essential services (things like imaging centers and specialty practices) temporarily closed in response to an executive order from Gov. Ralph Northam.

Those practices weren’t on the front lines caring for critically ill COVID-19 patients — that isn’t their mission, and they aren’t equipped to provide that level of intensive care.

Meanwhile, hospitals and emergency departments on the front lines provided lifesaving care to more than 50,000 Virginians who contracted the coronavirus, while continuing to deliver babies, and treat stroke and heart attack patients, people injured in serious accidents and more.

Dismantling COPN would lead to a concentration of nonemergency practices like ambulatory surgical centers and medical imaging facilities in affluent communities at the expense of critical care services across the state, eroding access to lifesaving care.

Many specialty health care facilities were closed in the early days of the pandemic and weren’t involved in caring for COVID-19 patients after reopening.

The response to the COVID-19 pandemic is an unmistakable example of why COPN matters. It shows us that undoing this law would weaken our system, and leave the health of Virginia and its residents vulnerable to another public health emergency.

Absent COPN, rural and urban communities with lower income residents would face diminished access to essential and emergency care services, in the process undermining Virginia’s continuing efforts to address the legacy of racial and economic inequity, and corresponding health implications.

And for what? The system works as intended. State data shows that more than 85% of completed COPN applications are approved. And the system evenly applies across the board to all applicants.

As Americans, we believe in equal opportunity, not different sets of rules for different people. Doing away with COPN is antithetical to that belief. It instead would advantage line-cutters and would negatively impact our health system in the process.

We should know better than to be enticed by the fool’s gold of those who are clamoring to gut COPN.

We cannot forget the critical lessons learned this year. Our eyes have witnessed the grave danger of a global pandemic. It is seared in our memories. And nothing, not even empty promises that are too good to be true, should otherwise persuade us or trick us into thinking the health of Virginians would be better off without COPN.

When it comes to our health care system and protecting access to care for our family, friends and loved ones, we can’t risk the strength, flexibility and incredible ingenuity of our current system.

Christopher K. Peace and Rosalyn R. Dance are co-chairs of the Virginia Consumer Healthcare Alliance. Peace is a former member of the Virginia House of Delegates and Dance is a former member of the Virginia Senate.

This article originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch