By Susan Rogers, M.D.
Common Dreams, July 6, 2021
Republican lawmakers in 43 states have introduced proposals that will severely limit Americans’ ability to vote, both in person and by mail. And last week’s Supreme Court ruling on Arizona’s voting rules opened the door for states to impose even more restrictions on voting. As a result, our most vulnerable neighbors—primarily low-income and people of color—will not be able to freely and fully exercise their constitutional right to vote.
As a physician who spent my career treating underserved communities, I know that when my patients lose their right to vote, they lose their right to the health care they need and deserve.
What do voting rights have to do with health care? In a free and functioning democracy, elected officials would implement health policies that are both popular and proven to best serve the needs of their constituents. But when politicians are no longer accountable to voters, they serve their most powerful and deep-pocketed donors, such as for-profit hospitals and the commercial health insurance and pharmaceutical industries.
When it comes to health care, the stakes couldn’t be higher. The U.S. spends $4 trillion per year on health care, almost twice as much as any other industrialized country, but we suffer from the worst performance on nearly every measurable health outcome, from life expectancy to maternal mortality. Thirty million Americans are uninsured, and an additional 40 million are underinsured. Nearly every family has a health care horror story: surprise bills, insurance company denials, medical bankruptcy, and—as I have seen much too frequently in my own practice—patients who delay treatment until it is too late.
Meanwhile, the industries that profit from our fractured health system are thriving: UnitedHealth Group, the nation’s largest insurer, reported 2020 profits of $15.4 billion; Cigna’s 2020 profits of $8.5 billion marked a staggering 66% increase over 2019.
Not surprisingly, Americans are outraged, and a majority of voters now support Medicare for All, which would improve Medicare’s benefits to also include necessary health services such as dental, vision, mental health, and reproductive care, and then expand coverage to everyone in the nation. Many studies, including a recent report from the Congressional Budget Office, show that Medicare for All could vastly improve our nation’s health outcomes while also decreasing overall health care costs.
If most voters want Medicare for All reform, why are we still trapped on the sinking ship of our fractured health system? Members of Congress (like all elected officials) respond to power, and political power comes in two forms: money and votes.
When it comes to money, the hospital, pharma, and insurance industries will always have ordinary people beat.
How can the average American compete, since these same industries have caused so much financial harm? Almost half of U.S. adults have skipped paying for essential items and bills so they could afford their medications, and nearly one in five skipped treatment for a health problem in the last year because of cost. The pandemic has pushed millions more Americans—particularly people of color—into poverty.
But, the one thing that every American should have, regardless of our income, zip code, or the color of our skin, is our vote. In an era of unprecedented corporate influence (the lobbying group America’s Health Insurance Plans spent nearly $4 million on lobbying so far this year), our vote is increasingly our only voice in the health care debate; our vote is the firewall that keeps health care from being entirely shaped by those that seek to profit from it.
Any attempt to restrict Americans’ ability to vote, particularly in communities of color, will result in worse health care and worse health outcomes for the most vulnerable.
My patients are desperate for equitable and universal coverage that can only be achieved with Medicare for All. But we won’t get real health care reform until we elect representatives that actually represent us. Health care will never be a right unless voting is a right—for all.
Dr. Susan Rogers is recently retired from Stroger Hospital of Cook County in Chicago, but continues as a volunteer attending hospitalist and internist there. While at Stroger Hospital, she was co-director of medical student programs for the Department of Medicine and received numerous teaching awards from medical students and residents. She is an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Rush University, where she continues to be an active member of the Committee of Admissions. Dr. Rogers currently serves as president of Physicians for a National Health Program, a nonprofit research and education organization whose more than 23,000 members support single-payer Medicare for All reform.