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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 4/30/20

The Covid-19 Pandemic Exposes Deep Flaws In America's Broken Healthcare System

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The Coronavirus Crisis Is Demonstrating Why It's Time We Replaced A System That Exists Purely For Profits With One That Puts Public Health First.

When it comes to the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths, the United States is off the charts compared to other countries. Although the USA comprises five percent of the global population, 32 percent of Covid-19 cases and 25 percent of deaths worldwide are there. By contrast, China, where the novel coronavirus originated, has one-tenth of the number of cases and deaths, despite having a population that is four times larger.

A disaster scenario is playing out across the United States, particularly in New York City where scores of refrigerator trucks have been brought in to hold the dead, hundreds of people are dying in their homes without medical attention every day, mass graves are being used to store bodies while mortuaries are overwhelmed, and health professionals lack basic personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators, and dialysis machines.

Dr. Mike Pappas, a doctor there, has described the difficulties he and other health professionals are facing. The shortage of PPE means doctors and nurses are reusing masks and gowns and are sometimes working without them. They are wearing trash bags over their bodies to protect themselves and their patients from becoming infected. In an interview, Dr. Pappas spoke about the stress of not having enough staff, having to clear hallways and the cafeteria to make bed space, and the reluctance of hospital administrators to buy more ventilators.

As people in America struggle to wrap their heads around the twin crises of the rampant pandemic and collapsing economy, it is easy to blame the Trump administration for its failures to take rapid and effective action to contain the spread of infection and provide financial support. In reality, the roots of the crises precede Trump. The US would have fared poorly during a pandemic under any president.

It's The System, Stupid

The current disaster exists in large part because the US healthcare system is the opposite of what is needed. It is fragmented, discriminatory and designed for corporate profits, not the well-being of the public. Even before the pandemic, the United States had the highest number of preventable deaths compared to other wealthy nations and a declining life expectancy.

Nearly every facet of the system, which is twice as expensive as other developed countries, is designed to extract profit whether it is the hundreds of private health insurers that compete for the healthiest enrollees while avoiding those with health conditions, or the pharmaceutical corporations that charge whatever the market will bear. Even hospitals are shutting down essential departments such as obstetrics and pediatrics to make space for more lucrative areas like cardiology and orthopedics.

Two-Thirds Of US Bankruptcies Are Caused By Medical Bills

There are now more than 30 million people without health insurance. In the past five weeks, as more than 26 million people filed for unemployment benefits for the first time, five million of them lost their health insurance. The number of uninsured is expected to rise by more than 13 million by June. On top of that, tens of millions of people with health insurance can't afford care because of the thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket costs they must pay before their insurance benefits begin.

Even if a person has health insurance, there may not be anywhere to go for care. Over the past 45 years, as the US population grew by over 100 million, the number of hospital beds shrunk by about 600,000. Hospitals closed in rural areas because they could not bring in enough revenue to keep their doors open. Another 453 rural hospitals are teetering on the edge of closure out of the 1,844 that remain. In cities, hospitals that served poor communities for over 100 years are being shuttered to make way for luxury housing or retail space in gentrifying areas.

Another flaw that has been exposed by Covid-19 is the supply chain for goods and equipment. In February and early March, when patients went to hospitals with symptoms of the virus, there were few to no tests for diagnosis because the US chose to create its own tests rather than purchasing them from the World Health Organization. There have been severe shortages of protective gear. States have been fighting with each other to get basic kits as suppliers raise prices by as much as 1,000 percent.

This situation has made the call for a national improved Medicare for All healthcare system grow louder. If the US already had Medicare for All, many of the problems being experienced would not exist. Under the Medicare for All system, as defined by the congressional bill in the House of Representatives, every person in the US would be covered from birth to death without requiring payment before care is given.

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Margaret Flowers, M.D. is a pediatrician from Maryland who is co-director of Popular Resistance and coordinator of Health Over Profit for Everyone Campaign.

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