By Marcia Angell, M.D.
Santa Fe New Mexican, March 21, 2020
The coronavirus pandemic is the best argument for “Medicare for All.” As it stands, most Americans get health care only if we have insurance that will pay for it. If we don’t or we can’t afford the deductibles and copayments, too bad. Every other advanced country provides universal health care in a predominately nonprofit system.
What happens, then, when Americans develop a fever and cough? Are they likely to seek medical help, despite the hefty bills they are sure to receive, particularly if, say, the radiologist is out of network or the insurance company refuses to pay for some other reason? The new coronavirus, while highly contagious, is usually mild, so people with minimal symptoms might simply take their usual cold remedies while they go about their business and spread the infection widely.
The problem is that we treat health care like a market commodity distributed according to the ability to pay in an uncoordinated system with hundreds of commercial insurers and profit-oriented providers. Some 30 million people have no access to health care because they are uninsured, and millions more don’t use their insurance because the deductibles and copayments are unaffordable. In addition, insurers usually require patients to get their care within a narrow network of providers and exclude certain services.
The shortage of test kits for coronavirus stems from a related problem. Since there was no commercial market for them, they didn’t get made immediately. While we’ve converted health care into a market commodity, we’ve hollowed out our public health system, so it couldn’t do the job.
For all we know, the coronavirus may already have spread widely within the United States. Although it has been in other countries for more than two months, we have not really looked for it here. Until the last week in February, our premier public health agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, limited its diagnostic testing to symptomatic patients who had traveled to China or had contact with someone known to be infected. This is akin to looking for lost keys only under a lamppost.
The CDC probably could not have done better, given its lack of funding and governmental support. But ignorance is hardly a good public health strategy. Right from the beginning, we should have made test kits available to state and local public health agencies (as was done in Italy and South Korea). The only way to deal with an epidemic of this scope is with a universal health care system like “Medicare for All” and a strong, well-funded public health network.
The political opposition to “Medicare for All” is puzzling, since Medicare is the most popular part of our current fragmented system. In fact, many 64-year-olds can hardly wait to be 65, so they will be eligible. Why, then, do opponents of “Medicare for All” seem to believe that extending this popular program to everyone would be a sacrifice? Would a 64-year-old really prefer private insurance, with its networks and variable benefits, to Medicare, with its free choice of doctors and guaranteed benefits?
It’s true that taxes would have to increase to pay for “Medicare for All,” but the taxes could be as progressive as we wanted. For most Americans, they would probably be completely offset by the elimination of premiums, deductibles and copayments. In addition, the system as a whole would be far more efficient, because of the reduction in our gigantic overhead costs and the elimination of most profits. Most important, cost inflation would slow greatly, so that in a few years we would come out well ahead.
But as important as cost control is, my reason for favoring “Medicare for All” is primarily moral. Health care is not like ordinary consumer goods that people can choose to purchase. Illness is not a choice; it’s a misfortune. So why should people have to pay for it, as if they wanted it? Providing health care, just like providing clean water or police protection or basic education, is simply what decent societies should do. And during an epidemic, it protects all of us. The coronavirus pandemic powerfully underscores the need for a coherent national health system, in which we all pull together.
Marcia Angell is a member of Harvard Medical School’s Department of Global Health and Social Medicine, and a former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine. She will soon be a resident of Santa Fe.