If patients want to support healthcare workers on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic, they should join us in calling for a universal, single-payer healthcare system.
By Jonathan Michels
Piedmont Left Review, March 20, 2020
Any hope that we might emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic unscathed is gone. So far, the novel coronavirus has claimed the lives of 150 Americans and infected 10,442 others. Those figures are certainly higher because access to coronavirus test kits remains severely limited.
I know full well the risks of contracting the deadly disease. I work as a radiology technologist at a large teaching hospital, where patients believed to be suffering from acute respiratory disease are likely to receive a chest x-ray upon check in. That means me.
Like many healthcare workers, I might be infected right now and not even know it because of the lack of testing.
As the coronavirus continues to tear through the United States, there has been a mass outpouring of love and solidarity directed at healthcare workers like me. People have sent us prayers and beautiful songs. More substantively, people have amplified our demands for more personal protective equipment (PPE), like gowns and N95 respirators, as well as paid sick leave.
It means a lot knowing that I have the support of my community.
But it’s not enough.
If patients want to support healthcare workers on the frontlines, they should also join us in calling for a universal, single-payer healthcare system more commonly known as Medicare for All.
Under Medicare for All, coronavirus testing for all US residents would be free at the point of care and more importantly, so would treatment. Providing universal healthcare now will mitigate the damaging effects of COVID-19 and maybe even prevent future pandemics.
Our expensive, inefficient and profit-driven healthcare system has left our communities defenseless against encroaching epidemics, a reality that will come as no surprise to frontline caregivers. We see daily the life-and-death consequences of a medical system in which profits are the chief measure of success.
It was healthcare workers who first sounded the alarm about COVID-19 — weeks before President Trump declared a national health emergency. According to a survey conducted by National Nurses United (NNU), only 30 percent of nurse respondents said they had enough PPE to weather a massive surge in COVID-19 patients.
I can personally attest that at this very moment healthcare workers are treating patients who do not yet know they are positive for coronavirus. Meanwhile, others are caring for confirmed patients without all of the tools to do the job.
It is no coincidence that NNU, the nation’s largest nurses’ union, is also the most vocal proponent for Medicare for All. Nurses understand that the most efficient and affordable way to prevent and contain the spread of diseases like COVID-19 as well as improve the overall health of our communities is to ensure quality healthcare for all Americans, regardless of employment status or ability to pay.
As a healthcare worker, I bear witness to a broad spectrum of suffering; the kind that we are all likely to face at some point during our lives. But what haunts me at the end of each shift is the pain that could have been prevented if patients who are uninsured or underinsured had been able to access care sooner.
So while the scope and severity of the COVID-19 pandemic may be unfathomable, the challenges facing healthcare workers right now like safe staffing ratios and basic supplies are not markedly different from any other day of the week. Our healthcare system routinely undermines caregivers’ ability to treat our patients while maintaining our own safety.
The plan laid out by the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden calls for “eliminating cost barriers for prevention of and care for COVID-19,” but it would bolster and even expand the private health insurance system that is making healthcare workers feel like they are caring for patients with one hand tied behind their backs.
Without transformative health reform like Medicare for All that is based on meeting human needs and not the needs of markets, Americans will continue to die needlessly long after the coronavirus pandemic has ended and the last quarantine is lifted.
Despite some improvements from the Affordable Care Act, 28 million Americans are uninsured, without access to primary care that could prevent costly and life-threatening diseases. An additional 41 million people are underinsured, facing prohibitively expensive co-pays, premiums and deductibles that limit access to care.
Healthcare workers–among the most at risk for contracting COVID-19–are currently not guaranteed access to medical treatment. A 2009 study found that 11 percent of American healthcare workers are uninsured. That’s 1 in 8 caregivers who could be treating coronavirus patients right now.
Medicare for All would prevent more than 68,000 unnecessary deaths each year while saving $450 billion annually in billing costs and administrative waste, according to a study published in The Lancet.
Even if employers provide health insurance, some workers’ low wages prevent them from purchasing coverage. Not only would Medicare for All increase the health of every American, it would be a big step in lifting healthcare workers out of poverty because the money that employers spend on providing health insurance could be shifted to raise wages. That would be life-changing for the estimated 1.7 million female healthcare workers and their children living in poverty.
The staggering complexity of our healthcare system requires a tremendous number of administrative staff and resources which account for a whopping 25 percent of all US healthcare expenditures. Yes, Medicare for All will eliminate around 1.8 million administrative jobs but in turn lead to the demand for 2.3 million full-time healthcare workers to accommodate the millions of patients newly eligible to receive care. This will help ensure that caregivers have the staffing levels they need to safely and swiftly respond to public health crises like COVID-19.
Medicare for All would also give a boost to healthcare workers who want to unionize over unsafe staffing levels and a lack of basic supplies because hospitals would be barred from using public money to bankroll union-busting campaigns. The very groups that have linked rights in the workplace with the health of their patients have been nurses and healthcare unions, most notably National Nurses United.
The pandemic has likely just begun in America but it has already shifted our attention away from ourselves and towards one another as more and more people come to the realization that collective problems require collective answers.
The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the gaping holes in our social and economic safety nets while underscoring the need for a robust medical system that empowers caregivers to truly meet public health challenges, big and small.
That’s not what we have in the US right now, but it could be.
Medicare for All, despite benefiting everyone, will not be won by appeasing medical profiteers. Private health insurers, medical device manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies and banks (which have ensnared millions of Americans indebted by medical expenses) stand to lose too much if America moves to a single-payer system.
The growing enthusiasm around Medicare for All represents an existential threat to private interests. In a similar act of solidarity, they have coalesced to form the Partnership for America’s Health Care Future in order to stymie the Medicare-for-All movement and keep the money flowing for as long as they can.
Voters have been inundated with anti-Medicare-for-All attack ads bankrolled by the Partnership in an attempt to turn them away from candidates like Democratic nominee Bernie Sanders who support the popular health reform. The dark money group reportedly spent a whopping 50 percent of all political advertising in advance of the Iowa caucus.
In addition to lobbying against universal healthcare, members of the Partnership are advocating for a $100 billion aid package for American hospitals. Leading the charge are the for-profit hospital corporations represented by the American Hospital Association, which stands to win big on the suffering of Americans amidst the coronavirus pandemic.
Americans have a choice. What do we value more — corporate interests? Or each other?
Healthcare workers standing on the frontlines will not be enough to counter the well-financed interests standing in the way of transformative health reform. Thoughts and prayers are nice, but what healthcare workers actually need is for patients to join us in demanding Medicare for All.
Jonathan Michels is a freelance journalist and healthcare worker based in Durham, North Carolina.