The United States has the highest number of known coronavirus cases in the world, with over 834,000 infected and at least 45,000 deaths so far, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Borders have been closed, schools and businesses have been shuttered, and officials have instituted stay-at-home orders. Like millions of Americans struggling to navigate the sudden demands of working remotely, I am hastily learning to adapt my studies as a medical student to a new format. Seemingly overnight, our lives have changed.
Now, more than ever, we focus on what matters most: our loved ones, our shared human connections, and our health. Yet just when health is of the utmost importance, millions of Americans are at risk of losing their access to health care due to layoffs. This potentially disastrous paradox exposes the crucial weaknesses of having a health care system heavily reliant on employer-sponsored health insurance.
Unlike many other industrialized nations, the United States lacks universal health care, leaving most Americans to depend on insurance from their employer. In 2018 the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that more than 55% of Americans receive their health insurance through their employer. The gaping flaw in this structure is that when people lose their jobs, they lose their access to health care.
The problem is greatly exacerbated in an economic recession. A record 22 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits over the past month, and it's just the beginning.
As a medical student, I have seen patients whose health has severely deteriorated from not being able to afford medical care. Chronic conditions become unmanageable, medications become unaffordable, and small problems balloon into large ones. When I see patients in our hospital with severe, even life-threatening conditions, I don't have to wonder why they didn't get help sooner. The sad truth is that most had no choice.
I've seen the degree to which the uninsured are hesitant to seek care, especially when American health care prices are skyrocketing. This will undoubtedly increase the overall death toll and damage to our country from COVID-19, because access to care and testing is crucial for containing the spread of the pandemic. In addition, the laid-off workers now finding themselves uninsured will no longer be able to receive care for other conditions even after the virus becomes contained. This increase in suffering could have been prevented by having a universal health care system in place.
Such a system would be advantageous in numerous ways. People wouldn't lose their health insurance as a result of unemployment. Access to health care would be maintained, as the government is in a much better position to absorb the financial fallout from a crisis than insurance companies or other employers.
Public health is a common good on which we all rely. The lack of a unifying public program that ensures access to health care for all creates massive holes in our defense as we wage war against disease. Regardless of your own status, you have a greater risk of getting infected if your neighbor is unable or hesitant to access medical care for a contagious disease like COVID-19.
The need for universal health care is no longer something we can ignore or postpone. Every day the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic is exposing weaknesses within our flawed system. To prevent similar future crises, we must resolve to wean ourselves off our unhealthy reliance on the private marketplace to provide public health.
Sanderson is a first-year medical student in the Long School of Medicine at the University of Texas in San Antonio.
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