The United States is currently recovering from the worst public health catastrophe of our lifetimes: hundreds of thousands dead, people losing their employer-sponsored health plans at record rates as unemployment skyrocketed, and medical debt spiking by more than $2.8 billion.
You’d think this would be a wake-up call to the US government. But for all the fanfare around valuable economic and educational investments in the American Families Plan, there’s a glaring oversight in the president’s priority list: the fragmented, deeply inadequate health insurance system.
If we learned anything in the last year, it’s that America’s employer-based model of health care has failed. When Covid-19 struck, it wreaked havoc on businesses, forcing them to lay off workers and depriving millions of people of their jobs and their insurance during a worldwide medical emergency. And there’s no question: The coronavirus disproportionately affected low-income Americans who lacked sufficient health coverage and had preventable preexisting conditions.
Of course, not everyone suffered. Despite the cataclysmic death toll and long-term health impacts of the pandemic, health insurance companies are doing just fine—raking in staggering profits, while small clinics and rural hospitals shutter. Rather than using those savings to lower premiums or deductibles for their struggling customers, the insurance racket continued with business as usual—making money by denying claims and raising prices.
None of this is good for our health. The statistics prove it: America’s life expectancy is significantly lower than that of other industrialized nations. And, of course, in those countries, businesses are able to pay higher wages with money that otherwise would have been spent on health-insurance costs. Meanwhile, in America, businesses spend nearly $880 billion on health care benefits for their employees—that averages out to around $14,800 per employee.
After all that death and chaos suffered by the American people, you’d think that lawmakers would be ready to embrace the single-payer health care system already supported by a majority of Americans, under which 95 percent of all households would save money.
We know President Biden understands that our health care system is run by giant pharmaceutical and health insurance lobbies that put their profits before the health of the American people. We also know he agrees that it’s time for a change: After all, he explicitly campaigned on adding a public option health plan, as an alternative to the costly, inefficient private plans most Americans are stuck with (if they’re lucky). As a candidate, President Biden supported expanded subsidies for health insurance premiums, and creating earlier Medicare eligibility.
These are critically important first steps, and we urge the administration to get moving on them right away. But the America we live in today is not the same America President Biden ran to represent. We’ve lost a lot since 2019. The coronavirus crisis has exposed and exacerbated the human toll of our broken health care system.
Being the deeply empathetic man we know him to be, President Biden will have seen that his initial plan to expand access to private health insurance falls short.
Even Americans with generous coverage are vulnerable to high deductibles and “surprise” medical bills after receiving out-of-network coverage, through no fault of their own. In the case of testing and treatment for Covid, insurers aren’t always protecting patients from additional costs. Residents of the richest country in the history of the world should not be forced to rely on the generosity of their friends and neighbors to pay for cancer treatments, life-saving surgeries, or insulin.
So while we applaud President Biden for investing in children, families, and workers, we strongly urge him to get moving on fixing this broken, for-profit health care system. The pandemic devastated this county—and proved that it’s past time to implement affordable, comprehensive care for everyone.