Covid-19 Offers a Watershed Moment
Life is Work performed by Nature, powered by Energy from the Sun. Complex in its details and diversity, the process is quite straightforward at its core. Plants convert electromagnetic radiation (light) from the sun, producing — from carbon dioxide and water — the carbohydrates (sugars) that form their bodies and releasing oxygen. Animals, in turn, consume the plants and inhale the oxygen, using the energy stored in the carbohydrates to power their metabolism, and releasing carbon dioxide and water. It is this fundamental life-process that Covid-19 interrupts by interfering with, and often destroying, our ability to breathe — i.e., to absorb the oxygen we need to survive and thrive. The pandemic has killed thousands and has paralyzed the world. Before we can do anything else — like resuscitating the economy or addressing climate change — we must stop the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and prevent any repeat wave of infections. To do that, we must have a functioning health care system.
The Covid-19 pandemic is not a purely natural disaster. Millions are unable to isolate at home because the US, unlike other developed countries, doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave. Millions can’t afford to see a doctor because they have no insurance. Four in 10 have high-deductible plans that force them to pay thousands of dollars before they benefit from policies purchased. Those who forgo testing or treatment for fear of the cost put the rest of us at risk.
The US spends about twice as much per capita on health care as other industrialized countries, and wastes about $500 billion annually on bureaucracies that bill a maze of private insurers or track down patients’ co-pays. Hundreds of billions go to corporate profits and CEO salaries of millions per year. Meanwhile, in the past decade, more than 120 rural US hospitals have shut their doors due to unprofitability.
Hospitalization for pneumonia costs on average $20,000, but coronavirus patients may need to stay on ventilators longer. Because millions of Americans require expensive hospital stays, nationwide health care costs are expected to increase by as much as $251 billion — and insurance premiums by up to 40%. Millions may lose their coverage and go without care as unemployment grows, exposing the folly of employment-tied health care.
In the end, the feds will have to cover the cost of the pandemic, including all testing and treatment, reimbursing states for their soaring expenses, covering the costs of Medicare, the bills of the uninsured — and the profits of insurance and drug companies. Why not, instead, move to a Medicare for All system that guarantees high-quality health care to everyone? It has solid 55% support among registered voters — a popularity likely to grow in parallel with unemployment.
What might that system look like? From my Hungarian youth, I remember Dr. Zimmerman making his daily visits to the sick on foot, often stopped by neighbors with problems and questions along the way. He would stop at your house if asked, examine you, give you some medicine from his bag or prescribe it for you to pick up at the pharmacy. Need be, he’d refer you to the nearest clinic or the hospital, arranging for an ambulance. All this without an appointment and at no charge.
At the clinic they’d test you, fix your teeth, examine your eyes and provide you with eyeglasses — all for free. Your hospital stay, including any operation, was free of charge as well.
District doctors like Zimmerman not only tended the sick. They kept people healthy and thus out of the rest of the health care system. They were well-paid professionals, trained in no-cost public universities without student loans to pay off — public servants motivated by a higher calling and a Hippocratic oath, rather than business-profit.
Socializing one-sixth of the US economy — that Medicare for all entails — may frighten those wary of change. However, we no longer face a choice between keeping things as they are and major changes. Will we allow premiums to skyrocket and bail out the industry with public funds, or will we seize this watershed moment to create a national health care service costing substantially less than our current system, according to virtually every major economic analysis?
When public health care systems struggle with underfunding, it’s usually for ideological reasons. Properly funded systems supported by tuition-free public education not only work, they also cost far less, as they dispense with layers of middlemen — including insurance companies with their bureaucracies and excessive profits.
If it’s time to open the economy, it’s time for a public health care system capable of keeping everyone healthy and virus-safe.