“So, as you all probably know, the coronavirus has hit Rhode Island.”
Immediately after this announcement by my professor, I walked briskly up Thayer Street to CVS with the intention of buying multiple bottles of hand sanitizer and soap to stock up. As I searched the shelves, it dawned on me that others may have already had a similar urge. As it turns out, it’s not just CVS where hand sanitizer is out of stock, but warehouses as well — and there is no telling when it’ll be back. When I asked the sales associate at the counter, he told me CVS had no idea when its warehouses would be restocked. Later that day as I searched Amazon for hand sanitizer, many items read ominously underneath: “Currently unavailable.” One 8oz bottle of Purell I found cost $60. With the exception of our mutual inability to purchase hand sanitizer, I realized I have a lot less to worry about when it comes to the coronavirus than the uninsured in America.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one should wash their hands for 20 seconds with soap and water frequently, stay home from work if sick and contact a health provider if symptoms matching those of COVID-19 arise. Simple enough, right? Wrong.
For uninsured Americans, fighting off the threat of a potential deadly pandemic is almost impossible under our current health system — and it’s not because of soaring Purell prices. In the wake of the growing global panic over the coronavirus, Congress must set aside their disputes over health care and throw bipartisan support behind initiatives that would cover COVID-19-related expenses for all Americans.
Controlling the spread of COVID-19 requires universal access to paid sick leave and adequate health care — both of which are not a guarantee for many Americans. Our fractured, unethical health care system excludes millions of Americans from access to adequate care, often through exorbitantly high costs. Surveys done by the Kaiser Family Foundation concluded that in 2018, 28 million people had no health care coverage. Moreover, 20 percent of the uninsured population reported going without needed care “because of cost.” This means that a significant portion of American citizens who do not have access to proper care risk going untreated if they contract COVID-19. These already troubling health care statistics become even more concerning in light of the rising numbers of infected and dying COVID-19 patients, with at least 10 states declaring states of emergency at the time this piece went to press.
Without ensuring everyone has adequate insurance to cover their costs, the government is essentially forcing someone to decide between infecting others and securing their next meal. This is never justified, especially in the event of a potential global pandemic. Congress, which has been given the responsibility to represent and protect its constituents, must take action to at least temporarily cover the 28 million uninsured Americans. Our leaders need to realize that this is the time to protect ALL American citizens instead of fighting over partisan issues.
It is not just the health of uninsured Americans that will suffer if federal action is not taken; the American health care system puts the entire U.S. population at risk. If a portion of the population is unable to abide by the CDC’s protocol for COVID-19 — which includes self-quarantine and visiting health care professionals — it will fuel further viral transmission. The absence of treatments or a vaccine means that containing COVID-19 must be a priority, according to Director of the National Center for Immunological and Respiratory Diseases Dr. Nancy Messonnier. But, due to America’s defective health care system and labor laws, containment might not be possible. Americans living without adequate insurance, or none at all, will likely continue to work instead of losing valuable pay, undermining efforts to contain the virus.
While it is true that Congress recently passed a bill creating an 8.3 billion dollar fund to combat the spread of coronavirus, the vast majority of these funds go toward research and innovation. Though this is undeniably a necessary and valuable contribution to fighting the spread of the virus, the benefits that materialize from this initiative will only be available to those who can afford care. The fund directly allocates just 1.2 percent of resources to community health centers helping underserved groups; while this percentage does not include state-allocated funds, this resource allocation is not a sufficient measure to protect the American public and stop the spread of the virus.
On March 3, Arizona Representative Ruben Gallego announced his plans to propose a bill that would cover all treatments and testing for COVID-19. This bill would automatically qualify all Americans for emergency Medicaid, which would provide free testing and treatment in the instance of contracting COVID-19. In the face of a global pandemic, Congress must take steps to protect its most vulnerable populations. Rep. Gallego said, “Coronavirus could spread even more quickly if people avoid testing and treatment due to astronomical medical costs. Nobody should be forced to put their own health and lives … at risk because they can’t afford critical medical care.”
Once introduced, it is in America’s best interest to support Rep. Gallego’s bill, or anything akin to it, not only to help uninsured Americans but to thwart a looming deadly outbreak of COVID-19. Congress needs to get their heads out of the sand and pass Gallego’s bill in order to protect Americans from the dangers of our own health care system.
Lea Brody-Heine ’22 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com.