How Medicare for All Would Help Fight COVID-19

As Covid-19 continues to spread across the United States, hospitals in major cities are reaching capacity and running out of vital equipment. States are creating their own social distancing guidelines and aren’t testing people quickly enough. And some who are feeling sick fear the astronomical cost of a hospital stay; one uninsured woman was charged nearly $35,000 for testing and treatment.

Universal health care sure would come in handy right now.

Lowering medical treatment costs and untethering healthcare from employment are the most obvious benefits of a single-payer system. That’s especially important during a pandemic which could lead to record unemployment and widespread financial struggle. A universal healthcare system would also include vast government oversight of hospitals. That fundamental reframing of healthcare would help with issues like equipment shortages and understaffing.

“One of the problems we’re seeing now is that hospitals have been run by bean counters who look at hospitals the same way Honda looks at cars,” says economist Gerald Friedman. “They’re asking, ‘why do we have extra beds? Why do we have extra ventilators? Why do we have extra doctors?’ They think in sort of ‘just in time’ inventory.”

Friedman, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, has studied healthcare economics for more than four decades and has written several examinations of Medicare for All. His 2016 analysis of Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All plan famously predicted it would create an economic boom and lead to 26 million new jobs over the course of a decade. Friedman’s new book The Case for Medicare for All breaks down the numbers and explores the political and legislative history of universal healthcare.

Unfortunately, Covid-19 makes the case for Medicare for All all the more urgent. Just about every aspect of the healthcare system would be rethought under a universal healthcare system. Focusing on public health collectively, rather than individually, would revamp pandemic responses for the better.

“When a [Covid-19] vaccine is developed, we want everyone to be vaccinated, we want everyone to be healthy. And the best way to ensure that is providing it to people free of charge,” Friedman says. “That’s not possible under the current system, which treats healthcare as an individual good. Medicare for All would treat healthcare as a public good.”

Like most experts, Friedman acknowledges there are policy responses that could’ve been taken under the current system to mitigate the spread of Covid-19. The Trump administration’s slow response time and seeming disinterest in monitoring or preparing for a potential pandemic put America in a precarious position. But now that the outbreak is widespread and beginning to peak in some places, the failure of the fragmented private health insurance system will be laid bare.

“We’re looking at a huge upsurge in demand for ICU beds [and] for ventilators. The system just isn’t prepared for that, because it’s been run by people looking to minimize costs and maximize profits,” Friedman says.

It’s unclear how many Americans will die from Covid-19 or what the full-scale economic effects will ultimately be. But the pandemic has made it obvious that universal healthcare is a necessity to fight future public health crises. And as the federal government pumps trillions of dollars into the stock market and provides bailouts for major corporations, the “how will you pay for it?” argument sounds completely absurd.

“The current system we have, that’s what’s pie in the sky,” Friedman says with a chuckle. “If we can afford $46 trillion over ten years, the cost of the current system, we can certainly afford less than that for a system that ensures coverage for everyone.”