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A nurse adjusts intravenous drug dosages being given to a COVID-19 patient on the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) floor at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center on April 21, 2020 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

On Frontlines Against Covid-19, Healthcare 'Heroes' Across US at Risk From Underlying Illness, Poverty, and No Insurance

"Health care workers don't need lip service. They need raises, health benefits, and paid sick leave."

Julia Conley

A new study on the crisis of underlying illness, poverty, and lack of insurance within the medical profession prompted the advocacy group Physicians for a National Health Program on Wednesday to demand that the healthcare workers who have been lauded as "heroes" in recent weeks be afforded better protections, including high-quality medical coverage through a Medicare for All system.

Researchers at Harvard Medical School and Hunter College in a study published Tuesday showed that about 3.7 million frontline healthcare workers in the U.S. face chronic health conditions which make them more vulnerable to severe illness or death if they contract the coronavirus.

"The pandemic has illuminated how warped our economy and values have become... Many Americans doing the most essential and dangerous work, including health personnel, grocery workers, bus drivers, or delivery drivers, can't make ends meet or afford medical care."
—Dr. David Himmelstein, Harvard Medical School

The vulnerability of more than a quarter of U.S. healthcare workers to Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, is compounded by the fact that about 275,000 high-risk workers are also uninsured. That number includes more than 11% of healthcare workers who have diabetes and more than 20% who have chronic lung disease. A lack of insurance in a field in which millions of workers may be coming into contact with Covid-19 patients makes it likely that many healthcare employees will avoid seeing a doctor if they develop symptoms of the disease. 

Healthcare workers could also hesitate to stay home from work, as more than 28% of personnel who have direct contact with patients—including licensed practical nurses, nurses' aides, and home healthcare workers—lack paid sick leave, including more than one million who have underlying health conditions.

Those healthcare workers who make up the more than 600,000 in the field who live in poverty may face even greater challenges "compromising their ability to maintain social distancing outside their workplace," according to the study, which was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. 

While communities around the country have expressed gratitude to healthcare workers and other essential employees for working on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic, Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP) said, what these workers actually need to safely take care of others are "raises, health benefits, and paid sick leave."

"Health care workers are being celebrated as heroes, but they're denied the health coverage, sick leave benefits, and incomes they need to protect themselves and their families," said Dr. David Himmelstein, the study's lead author and a distinguished professor at Hunter College and a lecturer at Harvard Medical School. "The pandemic has illuminated how warped our economy and values have become. Financiers working in plush offices or luxury homes make billions shorting stocks. Meanwhile, many Americans doing the most essential and dangerous work, including health personnel, grocery workers, bus drivers, or delivery drivers, can't make ends meet or afford medical care."

The study noted more than 11% of workers in nursing homes, where high percentages of Covid-19 have been detected in a number of states, are without health insurance, compared to the national uninsurance rate of 9.1%. Nearly 15% of home care workers lack health insurance. 

While the CARES Act, passed by Congress last month, includes free coronavirus testing for people who are uninsured, 74% of hospital workers and more than one-third of nursing home and home care workers are excluded from expanded sick leave benefits. 

Thus far, study co-author Dr. Steffie Woolhandler said, "Congress and the president are leaving many [essential workers] unprotected and impoverished."

"They've passed paltry measures to expand coverage for coronavirus testing and to shore up hospitals' finances, but more than half a million health workers—and more than 30 million other Americans — remain uninsured," said Woolhandler, co-founder of PNHP and a distinguished professor at Hunter College. "Our health insurance system is broken, and only Medicare for All can fix it."

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