Coronavirus —An Opportunity to Push for Single Payer Healthcare?

Coronavirus Demands

It appears Rahm Emanuel, one of Obama’s ex-gophers, got one thing right — “You never let a serious crisis go to waste… It’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” Most assuredly, he wasn’t thinking about single payer healthcare as he carried water for an unwieldy, industry-friendly, people-unfriendly, campaign donor-driven healthcare obscenity his boss rolled out. True to the plan’s real intent, thirty million Americans who lack the dough go uninsured and forty-four million poor souls buy woefully inadequate but wildly expensive coverage.

Leave it to a pandemic to throw an unflattering spotlight on the U.S. privatized, market-driven healthcare system. Even the “paper of record” has noticed — “A widespread failure in the United States to invest in public health has left local and state health departments struggling to respond to the coronavirus outbreak and ill prepared to face the swelling crisis ahead” (NYT 3/15/2020).

Despite the eagerness of the mainstream media to blame it all on Trump, history supports the view that axing public health resources is an equal opportunity effort. According to the National Association of County and State Health Officials, local and state health departments have lost around one-quarter of their workforce since 2008 (during both Bush and Obama presidencies). The shortfall of public health resources has a lot to do with how the U.S. distributes its healthcare dollars with profit taking precedence over public health. For decades, the U.S. federal response to public health emergencies has been left to a fragmented, unwieldy healthcare system. Its bureaucratic complexity flows out of the many competing private interests in the marketplace. Profit is the sole driver of the system while state and local public health agencies go begging. In the face of a major crisis, understaffed and under-resourced public agencies cannot slow the pace of the epidemic or even guarantee sufficient supplies to save lives.

Contrast that shoddy performance with South Korea’s where testing is free and without restriction. Between 10,000-12,000 residents are tested in South Korea every day. In the U.S., the CDC reports that only 59,000 tests have been conducted nationwide up to March 18. Inhibiting the numbers tested is the requirement for a doctor’s prescription which means only the insured need apply.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of NIAID (National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases) at the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), gave the bad news to Congress— “The fact is, the way the system was set up is that the public health component… was a system where you put it out there in the public, and a physician asks for it, and you get it. The idea of anyone getting it (coronavirus test) easily the way people in other countries are doing it. We’re not set up for that. Do I think we should be? Yes, but we’re not.”  Congress’ response? On Friday, March 13, the House of Representatives and the White House agreed on a bill including free coronavirus testing and some funding for paid sick leave. The Senate adjourned for the weekend. The bill remains unsigned.

Drug Companies

Even if the U.S, were able to satisfy the profit expectations of private drug companies racing to be the first to develop a vaccine, a broken distribution system will still limit the numbers tested. Further stifling testing numbers is private industry’s perennial demand to get paid. President Trump thought he knew the answer— “[major U.S. insurance companies] have agreed to waive all copayments for coronavirus treatments.

That announcement sent AHIP (America’s Health Insurance Plans) into major panic mode.  They were quick to disavow— “[Insurance companies] have agreed to waive all copayments for testing, not for treatment.”  Like most Americans, Lori Kearns, Bernie Sanders’ legislative assistant, was outraged — “Heaven forbid they miss a chance to bankrupt sick people.”

Who knows how many Americans will find themselves at the mercy of an unforgiving and almost inconceivably greedy profit machine masquerading as U.S. healthcare. The experience of Frank Wucinski may well be a sign of things to come. In the face of presidential pronouncements that “these CEOs [of health insurance companies] have also agreed to no surprise billing,” Wucinski “found a pile of medical bills” totaling $3,918 waiting for him and his three-year-old daughter after they were released from government-mandated quarantine. “I assumed it was all being paid for. We didn’t have a choice. When the bills showed up, it was just a pit in my stomach, like, ‘How do I pay for this?’”

Profit Margins

Good question. Although the CDC insists that patients will not be charged for testing, Business Insider exposes the loopholes — “there are other charges you might have to pay, depending on your insurance plan, or lack thereof. A hospital stay in itself could be costly and you would likely have to pay for tests for other viruses or conditions.” Frank Wucinski can attest to that as he received a bill of $2,948 from an ambulance company. As a sad epilogue to this disturbing story, CDC’s response to whether the government would cover the cost of bills racked up by families like the Wucinskis was deafening silence.

The Creep

To go from disgusting to nauseating, count on Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, to step up to the plate. Several months ago, he announced that part-time Whole Food workers would no longer receive health benefits. The pandemic gave him another opportunity to screw his workers under the guise of giving them an opportunity to help fellow workers. Bear in mind that his is a low wage workforce living on limited budgets and in many cases having to decide whether to eat or pay their student loans. Loathsome heel that he is, he declined to deliver the bad news himself delegating that task to his lackey, John Mackey former owner of Whole Foods (sold to Bezos for $13.7 billion) and now its CEO. He was glad to oblige. In a letter sent to all WF employees — “Team Members who have a medical emergency or death in their immediate family can receive donated PTO [paid time off] hours, not only from Team Members in their own location, but also from Team Members across the country.” Coming from the owner of a subsidiary of Amazon, the world’s most valuable company, this is rich indeed. Ask former employee Matthew Hunt— “You’ve got the richest man in the world asking people who are living paycheck to paycheck to donate to each other. That’s absolute bullshit. With the amount Jeff Bezos makes in one day, he could shut stores down and pay employees to stay safe.”

These are perilous times for Americans at the mercy of a criminogenic private health care system looking to profit off this national emergency. What about those who cannot afford to visit their doctor (if they even have one) to get the prescription that is required to be tested. Those who do test positive risk costly treatments and even hospitalization where the usual rules for gouging the sick apply. If and when a vaccine is developed, how much will the thugs at the drug companies jack up the price to plump up their bottom line?

We can do better than a hugely expensive privatized healthcare system that is dangerously ineffective and inimical to the well-being of all but the one percent. Their halting and criminally negligent response to this pandemic is all the proof even the most credulous American should need. Americans deserve transformational change. Here’s what Bernie Sanders has been saying for the last thirty-five years— “We cannot allow Americans to skip doctor’s visits over outrageous bills. Everyone should get the medical care they need without opening their wallet—as a matter of justice and public health.” Joe Biden, on the other hand, is humming that familiar neo-liberal tune —you got to look at the cost [of Medicare for all].”  Strangely enough, cost is not on the Biden neo-liberal agenda when it comes to voting for trillions of dollars for the defense industry, bail-outs to the banks, and tax cuts for wealthy campaign donors. Former industry insider Wendell Potter recounts how the game is played —“in the midst of the coronavirus epidemic, the healthcare industry is quietly spending millions (they got from YOUR premiums and bills) to fight pro-consumer reforms all over the country.” Voting for the status quo (aka Joe Biden) is a vote of approval for an unjust, inhuman system that for decades has ruined the lives of millions of Americans. It’s time to stop the bleeding and vote for a Revolution.

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