What They Won’t Tell You About the U.S. Pandemic

Greed

What do you call a country that has only 4% of the world’s population but leads every other country in the world in COVID cases and deaths? If you guessed pathetic, loser or the U.S.A, you’re right on target. Even The New York Times, perennial cheerleader for all things U.S. has thrown in the towel —  “…one country stands alone, as the only affluent nation to have suffered a severe, sustained out-break for more than four months: the United States. Over the past month, about 1.9 million Americans have tested positive… That is more than five times as many as in all of Europe, Canada, Japan, South Korea and Australia combined…” [NYT 8/7/2020]

The facts are the facts. But the trick is to understand why in the allegedly richest and most powerful country in the world that spends 18% of its GDP on healthcare amounting to $3.65 trillion (2018), the U.S. is putting up such grim numbers. The corporate media harps on the failure of the Trump Administration to come up with a national policy for controlling the pandemic and the inability of a sizeable segment of the public to believe that their time in the sun has ended — at least temporarily. Adding fuel to the fire of the never Trumpers were the Bob Woodward tapes that had the President privately admitting the deadly nature of the virus while simultaneously assuring the public that COVID was no big deal.  That revelation made it easy for the media to ignore the 800-pound gorilla in the room —the private, profiteering corporations that control healthcare in the U.S.

Healthcare Profiteers

Let’s face it, healthcare in America has been risky business ever since corporate hustlers smelling big profits muscled their way into it. They weren’t wrong about the gold mine awaiting them. From 2000 to 2018, thirty-five of the largest drug companies earned $2 trillion in profits. The pandemic has only accelerated the looting of the public and private purse. If the over-the-top profits of big Pharma have left you almost bald (from tearing your hair out), how about losing the few remaining hairs with the profits of health insurance companies?  In the three months between April and June, they doubled their profits over the same period in 2019. That leaves the public caught in a double bind. Avoiding medical care because of the cost, but forced to continue paying health insurance premiums. The champagne corks are popping in health insurance land while costs are plummeting and profits are up. Take the country’s largest and greediest health insurer, United Health group. Profits almost doubled from $3.4 billion in the second quarter of 2019 to $6.7 billion in 2020. Anthem and Humana did even better with profits more than doubling over the second quarter of 2019.

It [outsized profits] is particularly glaring and inappropriate in a pandemic…“Private insurance companies make money by taking in premiums and not paying for care” (Steffie Woolhandler, co-founder of Physicians for a National Health Program).

If you’re not a rich, well-connected healthcare investor profiting from the suffering and misery of ordinary Americans, you’re in a much different boat — a lifeboat. Sixty million Americans have lost their jobs and along with their jobs, at least 27 million have lost their health insurance. [Kaiser Family Foundation] Add to that, the 29 million who were uninsured before COVID and the exceptional nation can cut another notch in its belt — 18% of Americans dare not get sick. For the 87 million who are insured but with large deductibles ($5,000-$10,000) or larcenous copays, medical care is also not an option [Kaiser Family Foundation].  Is it any wonder that many Americans refuse to get a COVID test knowing they cannot afford treatment?

It’s not just sick Americans who are getting shafted. For the healthy ones, other travails await. U.S. travelers are barred from entering almost any of the world’s countries. “This is shocking, to see one of the most advanced countries in the world be put in the slow land of the global reopening.” (Robert Niblett, director of Chatham House, London think tank).

To be sure, American healthcare didn’t start imploding with the arrival of the virus. Long before COVID, the get-rich-quick schemes of the medical-industrial complex had affected many Americans, particularly the poor. More African American infants die at birth than in seventy countries. The overall infant mortality rate is worse than in forty countries.

U.S. mortality rates for every age group are ghastly. Americans generally die younger than people in 23 European countries, in Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Israel and Lebanon. Even in “shithole,” countries in South America, the ‘exceptional’ nation leads the death march. It’s been that way since 1980 when Americans lived an average of one year less than people in other developed countries. By 2020, the discrepancy had grown to four years.

How could a country that spends more on healthcare than any other country wind up the world’s chumps?

“We should not be running our health care system as a profit-making operation on steroids. Health care [in the U.S.] is not so much anymore about taking care of patients. It’s way more about making money.” [Eileen Appelbaum, Center for Economic and Policy Research]

 With the arrival of the pandemic things started going south faster.  Even the richest hospitals were woefully unprepared without a stockpile of PPE, testing and general hospital equipment in advance of an emergency. Chalk it up to the relentless pursuit of profits where stockpiling is not an option.

Money Not Care

The invasion of profit-hungry hustlers into healthcare is changing its entire face. In 2018, for the first time, more doctors were employees of a profit-making corporation (47.4%) than owners of their own practice (45.9%). The same movement toward increasing privatization has made emergency rooms into big-time profit centers. One-third are now in the hands of private equity and venture capital firms. The results were predictable—  as profit-hungry corporations bought up emergency rooms, prices jumped by more than $3 billion despite a 2% decline in visits. To add insult to injury, surprise billing which puts the onus on patients — even insured ones —for all or a portion of the bill became a frequent hazard.

Along with price inflation, staffing cuts became the order of the day.  “The quality of care declines after the private equity buyout, which seems to reflect staffing cuts.” In late July, 20% of clinicians had salaries skipped or deferred over the previous four weeks and 24% reported recent layoffs or furloughs. [Report of the Primary Care Collaborative (PCC) and the Larry A Green Center]. They weren’t the only ones feeling the pinch.  As private money realized the potential bottom line impact of the pandemic, for-profit hospitals were the first to cut bait and run slashing the pay and benefits of hospital employees. In one study researchers found that after private equity stepped in, nursing staff hours per patient fell 2.4 percent. Not surprisingly, federal regulators reported a 3.6% decline in the quality of care delivered to patients.

Since the Reagan years and continuing into subsequent Democrat and Republican administrations, public health has taken a back seat to the invasion of private companies and the creation of a medical industrial complex where market dominance and financial rewards take precedence. Funding cutbacks have made it almost impossible for public healthcare agencies to minister to the sick.  The result — “Many decisions are made for what is going to maximize profits for the private equity company, rather than what is best for the patient, what is best for the community.” [Mark Reiter, Past president of American Academy of Emergency Medicine].

How to stop the looting? The liberal community, even some left-leaning pundits are quick to advise the public to contact their senator or representative and demand action. Sorry folks, they’re already spoken for. If you were counting on the Democrats to come into office and put single payer healthcare on the top of their agenda, let me disillusion you. Democratic lawmakers have received $86 million from healthcare honchos since 2019. That’s an average of $310,000 per politician. How about ‘lunch box’ Joe? Is he going to give America the healthcare that almost everyone else on the planet has? It’s not looking good.  Biden has already made sure that Medicare-for-all did not appear in the 2020 Democratic party platform. His reward? Over $16 million healthcare dollars going into his campaign coffers.

Street Protest

Thousands of Americans took to the streets to avenge the horrendous murder of one man, George Floyd. What we’re talking about here is the deaths of hundreds of thousands of George Floyds — the majority of the 200,000 pandemic victims who didn’t have to die and the 70,000 Americans who die every year because they can’t afford medical care. All of the candidates on the ballot will address the healthcare crisis in the same way — business as usual. It’s time for those who support Medicare-for-All, and that’s most Americans, to make their voices heard — in the streets. It may be the last chance you get.

 

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