To policymakers, health care is a right—but only during a pandemic

The current COVID-19 pandemic sheds light on a number of issues with public policy, and it’s difficult to think about anything but the virus these days. In the wake of the crisis, legislators find themselves in a pivotal position (even more pivotal than usual), and suddenly many policies that previously felt completely unrealistic and impossible are being adapted.

Gay men are now permitted to donate blood, evictions have been suspended in New York state and inmates with “minor-risk” infractions are being granted furlough. Despite years of protest against accommodations for disabled employees and students, we can suddenly jump on board with remote working/learning. Despite years of legitimate equity concerns regarding SAT scores, colleges are suddenly willing to drop them as a requirement for application. Despite the premature deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans who have already died from treatable diseases, we are suddenly able to fathom free health care treatment. As these policies, previously considered essential, are overturned in rapid succession, I start to wonder why they weren’t changed sooner, and how we can make them permanent.

At the forefront of policy discussion is Medicare for All. The current Democratic primary revolves around the debate about the nature of our health care system. Last month, California governor Gavin Newsom issued an executive order to fund COVID-19 testing, waiving all copays and allowing people without insurance to be tested. More recently he expedited over a billion dollars toward treatment. While I commend these actions, I feel as though we’re getting a mixed message from our government here: This specific disease warrants government intervention in health care, but if you have any other medical issue, you’re just out of luck. Where is the line between essential health care services versus supposedly unessential ones? Is chemotherapy unessential? Are EpiPens unessential? Is insulin unessential?

It appears the government has deemed people who otherwise couldn’t afford treatment for coronavirus worthy of saving. You might argue that we are in extenuating circumstances, which call for extreme measures. My response is that if we’d had universal health care from the beginning, we would not be in these circumstances to begin with. With the advance warning that we had (a privilege Italy did not get), we should have been on top of this disease; testing and treatment should have been widely available from day one. When poor and uninsured citizens experience flu symptoms, they are not free to just visit a doctor. When your health care depends on your employment status, and when most minimum wage jobs do not offer health insurance at all, our poorest citizens are the most likely to fall victim to premature death. Up until now, our leaders have been able to ignore that fact. The threat of COVID-19 has made it impossible to ignore. Indeed, the absurdity of tying insurance to employment grows increasingly clear as more and more people are laid off and left without health care in the midst of a public health crisis.

In America, we like to pretend that single-payer health care is a scary new territory; our lawmakers pretend that our health care problem is unique and has never before been solved. The truth is that it has been solved. A total of 18 countries offer true universal health care. In one of the wealthiest countries in the world, it is shameful that we found ourselves completely unprepared for this pandemic, and it is even more absurd that we are still unable to come to the conclusion that health care is a human right.

Most health care providers are waiving copays for COVID-19 testing, which is good—for now. The fact that COVID-19 may potentially force policymakers to see the logistic fallacies of our current health care system is good—for now. But I argue that the American people deserve better. It should not have taken a crisis of this magnitude for our government to address the immorality of private health care.

However, since we are in these horrific circumstances, let’s learn from them. I worry that when the threat of COVID-19 goes away, and policymakers no longer feel that their lives are at stake, they will forget the millions of uninsured people whose lives are continually at stake due to their lack of health care. As daunting and scary as it sounds, it is my deepest hope that when we emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, we will refuse to return to the conditions that allowed for the pandemic in the first place. We have to push our politicians to do better.

One example that hits particularly close to home for me is the inclusion of mental health treatment in universal health care. While you may find it counterintuitive to consider talk therapy, SSRIs or other treatments to be as life-saving as somatic procedures, the truth is that they are. Given the serious  public health threat posed by COVID-19, it’s easy to overlook the toll that social distancing and isolation will have—and has already had—on mental health. We will not have statistics on suicide rates of 2020 for another year or so, but I predict that we will see a rise from previous years. I personally find it harder to feel connected to my community, to get out of bed, to see the point of living, etc., and find it so much easier to sleep for 13 hours without any consequences. Making mental health treatment widely available will save lives, too. It is irresponsible and unethical for the government to continue to allow our citizens to die of treatable diseases, and the call to action initiated by coronavirus can and should extend to every single person and every single affliction out there.

I am certain that this pandemic will continue to force us to reconsider many aspects of society that were previously deemed necessary. (Could we hold online elections in November? Could we make workplaces accessible? Could we reform our education system?) Ultimately, the real challenge will be advocating for these practices well after this crisis is over. I sincerely hope that America is able to adapt.

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