2022 was a year of firsts for many in Harrisburg, including emergency physician-turned-state lawmaker Arvind Venkat, who became the first Indian American to be elected to the state House – and the first physician to serve in the General Assembly in nearly 60 years.
The freshman lawmaker took office in November 2022, representing parts of Southwest Pennsylvania, including McCandless, Franklin Park, Emsworth and Ben Avon. Venkat earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees at Harvard University and his medical degree at Yale University, and worked his emergency medicine residency at the University of Cincinnati/University Hospital.
City & State spoke with Venkat, a participant in City & State’s upcoming Greater Pittsburgh Healthcare Summit, about his health care policy priorities, Pittsburgh’s growing role in the sector and what to expect from the half-day summit.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
The panel you’re taking part in focuses on the intersection of technology and health care. What roles do you see emerging technologies playing in health care – and how can the Pittsburgh region help further develop them?
I think technology is really important from my perspective as an emergency physician – and now a physician-legislator – where I’ve seen telehealth and health care technology really help with patient care and in the emergency and prehospital setting. We have a very active program where I work clinically with Telestroke in order to provide stroke services to outlying hospitals. There are a number of startups that are doing work with in-home monitoring for those who have difficulty managing their activities and daily living at home. And I think there’s a real opportunity to leverage technology and IT to improve health care. But the real question that’s going to come up is: How do we make sure this is equitably accessible to everyone – and how do we really move forward in a way that is cost-effective?
What have you heard from constituents and stakeholders in your district about the cost of care and access to care, specifically among older and vulnerable populations?
There is a huge problem – and again, I see it in the emergency department setting – where a lot of these patients and a lot of these individuals don’t have access to transportation, they don’t have access to broadband … That’s where I think government has a very important role in ensuring that basic infrastructure is there and that the marketplace can build upon it in terms of the specialized applications we’re talking about in health care.
It doesn’t help anyone if you have a 75-year-old person with diabetes who does not have a lot of retirement savings and doesn’t have access to transportation or the internet … whatever the next technological application in health care is, they simply won’t be able to take advantage.
What role do you think Pittsburgh-region institutions will have with the government and health care sector in this?
It’s going to be a partnership. Government is not set up in a way to be innovative and to be nimble. And even these large health care institutions are often not as nimble as they should be, but they are certainly in a better place to do that than others.
I think the government is going to be able to partner in two ways. One is in setting a regulatory framework that kind of puts the guardrails around issues such as privacy, accessibility and what can be billed for in the health care space, given that the government plays a huge part in Medicare and Medicaid on payer policy. But the government is also potentially a funding source for the basic infrastructure we need. The issue with the health care institutions in our region is, how are they making sure that these innovations are accessible? And I think that’s where the government can be a voice about making sure accessibility is a priority.
How have you applied your experience in the medical field to Harrisburg and how has it shaped your discussions around certain policies?
I’ve been an emergency physician in this area for more than 15 years, have been in emergency physician roles for 25 years and I continue to practice. For me, that’s a great strength in being a legislator, because in emergency medicine, we care for everyone – no questions asked. We really see both the strengths and challenges in our community. I practiced during the height of the opioid epidemic, during times when as much as 20% of my patient population did not have insurance, and during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Bringing that perspective about what is happening in a very intimate way with my constituents and the community as a whole – I think that is a great strength to me as a legislator.
The other thing as an emergency physician: We’re very used to unfunded mandates. We practice under the ultimate unfunded mandate: the federal government saying that everyone has access to emergency care. But any unfunded mandate has unintended consequences. I try to bring that perspective into my role as a legislator, as well as try to think about how government policy might be idealized in its application, how it may have unintended consequences and how we minimize that as much as possible.
Looking ahead to the summit, what do you hope to bring to the conversation – and to get out of the panel discussions?
The first thing is awareness of the importance of this issue. I also hope the event has very tangible deliverables in terms of planned initiatives that come out of this continued engagement with the community. Finally, for any type of technological innovation to be impactful, certainly in health care, we need to be able to bring it to where people are and the circumstances in which they live. I hope that we transition from discussions we’re going to have to a grassroots-level engagement with stakeholders as these types of initiatives get rolled out.
City & State’s Greater Pittsburgh Healthcare Summit takes place July 19 at the Pittsburgh Marriott City Center. For more information, including tickets, click here.
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