The U.S. has a choice: Medicare, or coronavirus, for all

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Image: The White House/Flickr

"My co-workers make impossible choices daily because a lot of us don't have access to affordable health insurance," Vladimir Clairjeune, a passenger service representative at JFK airport, said at a training session Wednesday, learning to deal with the coronavirus/COVID-19 epidemic. "[We] choose not to see a doctor for a health problem because it could be the difference between paying the rent, taking care of family or getting needed care."

Earlier in the day, Vice-President Mike Pence met with airline executives to discuss the crisis. Air travel is still safe, they concluded. Yet it was reported on the same day that one of the growing number of coronavirus cases in Los Angeles County was a medical screener at Los Angeles International Airport. It wasn't clear if the illness was contracted at work or not.

One thing remains certain: the coronavirus doesn't care how wealthy you are or what political party you are in. The best way to be sure the person next to you isn't sick is to make health care available to everyone. The best way to achieve that is through Medicare for all.

The popular Medicare program, instituted in 1965, provides no-cost medical care for those 65 and older. Medicare for all would simply drop the eligibility age from 65 to zero, covering all Americans from birth. Our current health-care system of private and nonprofit hospitals and doctors offices would remain in place. Payments, however, would be made by the U.S. government (the "single payer"), replacing the for-profit health insurance corporations, which would essentially be put out of business. In Senator Bernie Sanders' Medicare for All bill, taxes would go up on middle class and the wealthy, but onerous insurance premiums, deductibles, co-pays and out-of-network expenses would go away. Health-care costs would go down more than taxes would go up, except for the very wealthy.

Most of Medicare for all's costs would be covered by eliminating the bloated overhead, profit-taking and multi-million dollar executive salaries of the health insurance industry. More savings would come from negotiating lower prescription drug prices, which Medicare is currently prevented from doing by law. Additional costs to society would be lowered or eliminated, such as the expense incurred by millions of uninsured people who resort to emergency room visits that could have been avoided with preventive care and annual doctor visits.

As the coronavirus pandemic spreads, it is in every individual's interest to know that all people have access to preventive and diagnostic care, as well as treatment if needed. You don't want to come down with COVID-19 because a person you were next to in some public setting couldn't afford a deductible or co-pay, didn't have paid sick leave or is among the 37 million in the U.S. who completely lack health insurance.

Last Monday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo issued a directive requiring New York health insurers to waive cost-sharing for coronavirus tests and related emergency room, urgent care and office visits -- for those who already have insurance. "Containing this virus depends on us having the facts about who has it," Cuomo said. "These measures will break down any barriers that could prevent New Yorkers from getting tested."

But what about those who are uninsured?

On Wednesday afternoon, Pence gave a press briefing, flanked by senior public health officials. At Monday's briefing, Pence pledged daily updates and full transparency. At Tuesday's briefing, the White House inexplicably banned video and audio recording. At the end of Wednesday's briefing, as Pence exited, and with cameras once again allowed, this exchange took place:

Reporter 1: Can you give guidance for the uninsured? Can the uninsured get tested? Gentlemen, ladies, can the uninsured get tested?

Katie Waldman Miller, Pence's press secretary: Scream into the camera, it ain't going to get you anywhere.

Reporter 1: Well how about answering the question?

Reporter 2: We would like an answer to the question.

Reporter 1: It's a valid question, could you answer it?

The question was ignored. Katie Waldman Miller married Trump's anti-immigrant senior advisor Stephen Miller, three weeks ago.

At New York City's major airports, workers like Vladimir Clairjeune are represented by SEIU 32BJ. Wheelchair attendants, security, cleaners and passenger service representatives are demanding state government action to improve their health-care plans, which currently make health care unaffordable with high premiums and deductibles, the union said.

In 2018, Trump disbanded the White House's pandemic response team and slashed CDC funds for assisting other countries, including China, with epidemic prevention.

We need a robust public health infrastructure. Above all, a healthy populace with regular access to affordable health care is the best defence against an epidemic like we now face.

Medicare for all would give our national health-care system a much needed shot in the arm.

Amy Goodman is the host of Democracy Now!, a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 1,300 stations. She is the co-author, with Denis Moynihan, of The Silenced Majority, a New York Times bestseller. This column originally appeared on Democracy Now!

Image: The White House/Flickr

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