As the national conversation slowly shifts away from the virus and we start to look towards the prospect of a post-quarantine world, we are left to wonder, what have we learned from this crisis? What has it shown us about the flaws of our system and how are we going to change as a result?
The magnitude of the outbreak in the US has forced us to accept something we’ve ignored for too long: our healthcare system is wildly inadequate. Our hospitals are bankrupt, millions of people don’t have health insurance, and hospital-deserts plague rural America. Each of these underlying problems have worsened our crisis exponentially. Several facts have become undeniably clear:
First, the lack of insurance amongst millions of Americans has discouraged many from seeking treatment and testing when they need to. Before the pandemic, over 26 million Americans already lacked proper health insurance, and one out of two American had already had to delay medical care because of the cost–a problem that is significantly worse in the US than in any other country. However, the situation recently got a whole lot worse because, as 50% of US workers are dependent on their employer for health insurance, mass lay-offs like the one we’re currently experiencing have already left 9 million people without insurance, and could leave up to 40 million more without the means to pay for treatment. In a reality in which the average coronavirus treatment is around 30,000$, a lack of insurance often means an inability for those who need it to get the help they want. In fact, a new Gallup Poll finds that 1 in 7 Americans wouldn’t seek coronavirus treatment because it would cost too much! There’s a reason coronavirus cases have risen faster here than anywhere else in the world: we have one of the least insured populations out of any OECD country, and those who need it don’t have the means to be hospitalized, thus continuing to spread the disease.
Viruses are impossible to foresee and prevent but pandemics of this scale aren’t. As we recover from this crisis, we have to ensure that every American has the financial means to be hospitalized, not just to prevent the spread of epidemics but also because 26,000 Americans die a year due to lack of health insurance. This needs to start by having a federal government that is significantly more invested in providing every American with health insurance. Whether it’s through proposals like Medicare for All, through greater investment in public alternatives, or even just broadening the scope of preexisting programs like the Affordable Care Act, this crisis has finally proved what millions have tried to say for decades: the private health sector simply can not do the job alone.
Second, our ill-equipped and underfunded hospitals have led to a shortage of critical supplies. Currently, over 41% of rural hospitals are operating at a loss. In the past decade, over 120 rural hospitals have already closed due to unprofitability, and one out of every four hospitals that still remain is on the verge of foreclosure. In fact, we have under half as many beds per capita as the comparable country average. In a pandemic, this disparity has had deadly consequences. With over 18 million people living in counties with no ICUs and nearly 11 million more residing in counties without any hospitals at all, our underfunded hospitals have made it increasingly difficult for Americans to get the care they desperately need in these difficult times! In fact, the demand for ICU beds may reach 20 times the current supply, forcing doctors to turn away patients in fatal situations.
Today we pay the price for our past failures to act, but we still have the power to prevent the crises of tomorrow. Just like with health insurance, our government needs to be more committed to helping out our failing hospitals. Apart from increasing funding to key federal programs (like the Area Health Education Centers Program which works tirelessly to bring doctors to underserved hospitals), a way to do so would be increasing subsidies to hospitals in need instead of spending $20 billion a year to back up big oil companies. Whichever means we chose, this pandemic has clearly exposed the facts that our hospitals simply can not go on so underfunded, the public sector must step in.
As we learn to better manage this crisis, it is imperative that we learn from the mistakes that made it so devastating. We must move towards a system in which the government is more involved in our healthcare system and makes a greater economic effort to ensure that every American is insured and that our hospitals don’t crumble in debt.
Nathan Darmon is a rising senior at Poly Prep Country Day School. Serving as the Captain of his school’s Congressional Debate team (where he is currently ranked in the top 10 in the state) and the President of his school’s Model UN team, Nathan travels nationally and coaches younger students to spread his love for public advocacy. He is passionate about understanding and redefining the role of the United States abroad as well as reforming our immigration and healthcare policy within the country.