Coronavirus fight – Would ‘Medicare-for-all’ have improved US response to COVID-19?

The presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., may have ended, but his “Medicare-for-all” crusade marches on. Writing in The New York Times last week, Sanders argued that the coronavirus outbreak proved the government should take over our nation’s health care system.

Sanders isn’t the only one championing “Medicare-for-all” in the wake of the pandemic. More than half of voters now say they support a single-payer system.

But “Medicare-for-all” would not have improved our nation’s response to the outbreak. Other countries with socialized medicine have struggled mightily to combat COVID-19. In fact, the United States would have been even less prepared for the pandemic under “Medicare-for-all.”

Sanders claims that COVID-19 lays bare the “absurdity and cruelty” of our health care system. He takes issue with the fact that millions of Americans who have recently lost their jobs have also lost their employer-sponsored health insurance. The Vermont senator worries about hospitals going bankrupt and health care workers getting laid off, even as the pandemic rages around us.

Sanders believes “Medicare-for-all” is necessary to fix all those problems. He’s sorely mistaken.

Take the coverage issue. Anyone who has lost their employer-sponsored insurance has the ability to purchase insurance through ObamaCare’s exchanges. Thanks to an executive order promulgated by the Trump administration, many can also purchase an affordable short-term, limited-duration health plan that can last for up to a year. Insurers can renew the plans for up to three years. Some of these short-term plans offer more generous coverage at lower cost than is available on the exchanges.

Sadly, short-term plans are unavailable in 11 states, whether due to outright bans or regulations that have resulted in insurers declining to sell coverage. More than half of states restrict the availability of short-term plans beyond what the Trump executive order envisions.

Sanders envisions “helping” those who lost their employer-sponsored coverage by just banning private insurance altogether and dumping everyone into a one-size-fits-all government plan. That would be tremendously disruptive.

According to the most recent U.S. Census figures, some 178 million people had private insurance coverage through their employers; another 34 million purchased private insurance directly. Most working privately insured households would pay more for health coverage under “Medicare-for-all.”

“Medicare-for-all” would also hasten hospitals’ descent into insolvency. The plan envisions reimbursing health care providers at levels similar to Medicare’s existing rates, which are about 40 percent less than what private insurance pays.

One-quarter of rural hospitals are already at risk of closure due to poor finances. A massive pay cut could force them to shut – and leave millions of Americans without ready access to care.

That’s a position many patients in countries with socialized medicine have found themselves in. Their health care systems don’t have sufficient capacity to handle a health crisis like COVID-19. Italy has just over 12 intensive-care unit beds per 100,000 people. The United Kingdom has fewer than seven per 100,000.

The United States, by contrast, has 35 ICU beds for every 100,000 people – the highest per-capita rate worldwide.

Perhaps more important, the United States has more open acute care beds than most developed countries, as Doug Badger and Norbert Michel point out in a new analysis for the Heritage Foundation. Over one-third of acute care beds are open in the United States, compared with just 15 percent in the United Kingdom and under 10 percent in Canada.

Finally, the U.S. government’s own mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic is proof enough that it’s incapable of running the entire health care system. “Sloppy” practices at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention left the agency’s first batch of COVID-19 tests contaminated and set the country’s pandemic response back nearly a month.

Federal officials assured us everything was fine – and went so far as to initially prohibit private labs from producing COVID-19 tests of their own. Those labs later struggled to get approval to create and conduct tests.

“Medicare-for-all” wouldn’t serve the country any better post-pandemic. Americans are understandably shocked at the prospect of hospitals choosing which COVID-19 patients get ventilators. But such rationing occurs on a daily basis in countries with single-payer.

Under “Medicare-for-all,” rationing and long waits for care would become the norm in the United States, too – not just during once-a-generation outbreaks but each and every year.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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