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Keeping isolated seniors connected and healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic

Published June 19, 2020
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Keeping seniors connected. For the Health of America.

The elderly have been the most vulnerable to COVID-19 across the nation, including in Puerto Rico, where more than 20% of the population is over the age of 60. When the pandemic hit, the island quickly enforced stay-at-home measures. Those may have slowed the spread of the disease, but they also meant seniors faced barriers to care and connection.

We spoke with Nanette Dumont, Service Management Vice President for Triple-S Salud, BlueCross BlueShield of Puerto Rico, about how BCBS Puerto Rico mobilized quickly to respond to the needs of vulnerable seniors.

BCBSA: What were some of the greatest challenges facing the elderly in Puerto Rico when the pandemic began?

Nanette Dumont: We knew that seniors—many of them our Medicare Advantage members--were already at higher risk for contracting COVID-19. We also knew that many of them were facing poverty. When Puerto Rico locked down because of the pandemic in mid-March, many of our elderly found it more difficult to access medication, medical care, food and the vital social connections they need. We had to make sure we kept that access and those connections strong. For example, food insecurity is a serious problem in Puerto Rico and becomes even more so in a pandemic that requires a strict lock down. To partly address the need, we identified 40,000 of our most vulnerable older members and we are delivering boxes of food staples and local produce at no cost to them. 

BCSBA: How has BCBS Puerto Rico helped connect seniors with medical care?

Dumont: Our initiatives have been many and continue to grow as we meet the needs of such an unprecedented health and economic crisis among our members. Our first steps were to educate our members on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19, how to spot the symptoms, how to care for themselves or quarantine at home and when to seek hospital care. 

We launched a public “stay at home” campaign to drive this home, knowing that avoiding contact with sick people was the best way to keep seniors safe. That’s also why we announced coverage of telehealth visits with primary doctors and specialists during the emergency, including mental health services. Our nurse advice line and emotional support hotlines are available 24 hours a day. Also, our Chief Medical Officer, Dr. José Novoa, appeared in a series of short videos for social media on who is more vulnerable to COVID-19 infection, how to prepare for a virtual visit and other COVID-related topics, since this technology might have been new for some of those members.

BCSBA: To help seniors stay home or avoid public transportation, what kinds of services have you been able to offer?

Dumont: We started the island’s first app offering free order and delivery of prescription and over-the-counter drugs. We’re also offering free delivery for a weekly healthy meal service and a lot of online content, from exercise videos to cooking classes.

BCBSA: Many people have relied on technology to keep connected or access care during this pandemic. Has BCBS Puerto Rico experienced any challenges with that? 

Dumont: We have been very encouraged by the adoption of telehealth initiatives, yet we are aware that there are serious barriers; among them, access to reliable internet services and difficulty in using these services. This is an area that we continue to work on, since we understand that telehealth initiatives will be a constant for the foreseeable future. We’ve made sure our telehealth offering includes traditional phone calls.

BCBSA: You mentioned BCBS Puerto Rico has developed a lot of content for seniors online to keep them healthy—and even entertained! Why focus on entertainment?

Dumont: We created a radionovela (radio soap opera) related to COVID-19 that has been really well received on our Facebook page, reaching more than 325,000 people. The story is called “In quarantine with my ex” – we decided to have a little fun with it! Radionovelas were a popular form of entertainment in Puerto Rico. The story line is compelling while following characters in situations people can relate to right now, such as watching the deserted streets below a balcony, worrying about family members who live in pandemic “hot spots,” or even navigating the new world of social distancing.

BlueCross BlueShield of Puerto Rico is a licensee of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, an association of independently operated, locally owned Blue Cross Blue Shield companies.

The Blue Cross Blue Shield Association is an association of 36 independent, locally operated Blue Cross and/or Blue Shield companies.