Coronavirus crisis demands immediate crash program and long-term structural reform of US healthcare system
The coronavirus is just beginning to hit the United States. The numbers of cases are small now but all signs signal a coming rapid increase and a public health emergency that the US is not equipped to handle. This deadly virus has a death rate 20 times greater than the flu, which kills tens of thousands of people in the United States each year.
The coronavirus crisis is exposing the gaping holes in the US healthcare system—holes in the health insurance system, in healthcare equipment and care facilities, and in global infectious disease control and public health protection programs.
Even though scientists and health professionals have been sounding the alarm for decades about the threat of deadly pandemics from new viruses and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the federal government has been underinvesting in global infectious disease and public health programs under the administrations of both major parties, leaving our healthcare system unprepared for new diseases like this coronavirus.
Trump has taken this malfeasance to a new level by playing politics with the coronavirus crisis. He is endangering lives with his happy talk for the stock market, his accusations that Democrats are ginning up the crisis for political reasons, and his muzzling of health and science professionals in the federal government.
We must demand these immediate steps from the federal government:
- Tell us the truth, not media spin. Let the science and health professionals speak openly.
- Fund a crash program for coronavirus testing, personal protective equipment for healthcare providers, and care facilities for those infected.
- Fund paid sick leave for those with coronavirus who are not already covered, with their jobs guaranteed upon return.
To address the ongoing threat of pandemics, we must work for structural changes in our healthcare system and for proper priorities in federal budgeting:
- Increase funding for CDC, NHS, HHS, NSC, and other agencies that work on global infectious disease and public health programs.
- Enact improved Medicare for All so every person can afford the medical care they need.
- Socialize the pharmaceutical and medical supply industries as public utilities supplying the healthcare system what it needs at cost for public benefit.
- Enact a permanent, universal system of paid leave.
- Convert 75% of the military budget to providing health, human services, and environmental protection at home and abroad.
A CRASH PROGRAM TO FIGHT THE CORONAVIRUS
One of the keys to stopping an epidemic is early detection. The US does not have nearly enough test kits. They must be imported, with South Korea now being the largest producer. The US must invest in getting tests to doctors so the coronavirus can be identified and tracked and effective public health and preventive measures taken.
Even if the tests were available, the cost to patients is a huge barrier. The barriers to healthcare created by for-profit, insurance-based health in the US means that many people will not go to a doctor when they have symptoms that could be the coronavirus or could be some other illness. It costs people with decent insurance often $1,000 for the test. Cost barriers include deductibles, which could be as high as $5,000 for low-cost insurance and are typically $4,000 for Affordable Care Act insurance. This kind of under-insurance affects 41 million adults. Another 28 million have no health insurance. These 70 million uninsured and under-insured people account for over a third of the adult population of the US.
Within our current for-profit health system, the federal government needs to take immediate action, including a crash program to provide healthcare providers and the public with protective gear, respirators, and other equipment and care that facilities need. States and federal community health centers should be funded so that people with symptoms of the virus or who have been exposed to the virus can be tested without charge. It is an emergency; people need to have immediate access to healthcare without any financial barriers.
PAID SICK LEAVE FOR THOSE INFECTED WITH THE CORONAVIRUS
Another area of failed policy on display by this coming epidemic is sick leave for workers. To stop the spread of the virus, people who have symptoms need to stay home from work so they do not infect their coworkers or people they come in contact with at work or while they commute to work.
Right now, the federal government needs to create an emergency fund for paid sick time. This will allow people exposed to the virus to stay home from work and not make others ill. It will also allow people who are ill with the coronavirus to stay home to recover.
I support paid sick leave for workers consistent with standards of other industrialized countries. Employment policies that provide for sick leave would make a tremendous difference in stopping the spread of the virus. The Center for Economic and Policy Research studied 22 developed countries. All countries offer at least nine sick days with full pay except the US, which does not require any paid sick time for workers. Research shows that flu rates fell by about 40 percent in US cities that mandated sick pay.
A TASK FORCE OF DOCTORS AND SCIENTISTS, NOT POLITICAL HACKS
President Trump has been urging cuts to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and other health departments when we need to be increasing US investment. The United States is about to invest $1 billion in the development of a vaccine. Alex Azar, a former executive of Eli Lilly pharmaceutical company and current secretary of Health and Human Services, said he could not ensure it would be affordable, saying, “We can’t control that price because we need the private sector to invest.”
President Trump is also preventing the public from hearing from public health officials. When a health crisis like this epidemic is occurring, accurate information is essential. Vice President Pence, a science-denier, has been put in charge of the coronavirus task force. This task force needs to be led by public health officials, not politicians trying to use this crisis for the 2020 election. Public health experts should not be muzzled. They should be free to tell the truth about the coronavirus.
A competent task force of people with public health expertise and understanding of science is needed. The Trump task force is designed for political purposes, not health purposes. Of the 17 members only four have any training in science or medicine. In addition, an immediate increase in funding is needed for CDC, DHS, HHS, and NSC programs dealing with global infectious disease and public health emergencies.
MEDICARE FOR ALL
I am advocating immediate implementation of improved Medicare for All and further developing this single-public-payer system into a community-controlled National Health Service.
Healthcare needs to be at no cost at the point of care and paid for by a progressive tax system. Healthcare providers should be salaried public servants. Hospitals and clinics should be publicly-owned and accountable to democratically-elected district health boards. Profit must be taken out of healthcare so that it becomes a public service where there is universal access to high-quality care.
Medicare for All includes global budgeting for hospitals, which will allow hospitals in rural and underserved communities to re-open. This will ensure that in times of an epidemic there will be sufficient hospital beds for the ill.
SOCIALIZE THE BIG PHARMA AND MEDICAL SUPPLY OLIGOPOLIES
Too much of the supply chain for medicine and healthcare products comes from outside the country. The US is facing a shortage of ventilators, respirators, and face masks. Because of decades of de-industrialization and corporate-managed trade agreements that have moved so much manufacturing outside the United States, the US is facing these shortages. It is time to re-industrialize the United States with Green New Deal factories in every congressional district that are publicly owned, worker managed, zero waste, and powered by clean renewable energy.
When the coronavirus vaccine is developed, it needs to be provided to people as a public health service without any consideration of profit. This demonstrates why Big Pharma should be socialized. It has gouged consumers with monopolistic pricing. Its business model is centered on pushing addictive opioids and patent-protected medicines for chronic conditions. It has abandoned research and development of less lucrative short-term treatments, notably for antibiotic-resistant superbugs. Under the current system, the US government pays for much of the research while the pharmaceutical industry takes the profits. This public rip-off must end.
The federal government under the administrations of both major parties has underinvested in global infectious disease and public health programs. The coronavirus is currently an epidemic but is likely to become an pandemic—a global health emergency. The US has the largest economy in the world. Rather than spending money on weapons and war, the United States needs to become a humanitarian leader. Part of that is funding global health programs so that the world is ready to respond to pandemics.
I have called for transition to a peace economy with a 75 percent cut to the military budget as part of the ecosocialist Green New Deal. In a peace economy the priorities will be meeting the needs of the people of the United States and the world, as well as protection of the planet. We need to replace capitalism’s nationalistic competition that results in endless war with socialism’s international cooperation so we can confront global problems like pandemics, hunger, the new nuclear arms race, and the climate crisis. The coronavirus is one more example that demonstrates why we need to reprioritize spending away from militarism to humanitarian and ecological necessities.
March 3, 2020