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To Defeat Coronavirus, We Need to Expand Medicare

Congress must act decisively to guarantee health care to everyone in the country. It should do so on moral grounds, it should do so on public health grounds, and it should do so to help ensure our economy gets back on track and stays back on track.

"To contain the virus and relaunch the economy, everyone needs health care," write Archer and Potter. "But without employer-sponsored health insurance and a paycheck, many workers are no longer able to afford the care they need. During a pandemic, that puts all of us in danger." (Photo: Paul Becker / Becker1999 / flickr / cc)

"To contain the virus and relaunch the economy, everyone needs health care," write Archer and Potter. "But without employer-sponsored health insurance and a paycheck, many workers are no longer able to afford the care they need. During a pandemic, that puts all of us in danger." (Photo: Paul Becker / Becker1999 / flickr / cc)

The novel coronavirus pandemic has exposed many failings in our health care system, among them the unreliability and excessive cost of employer-sponsored health insurance. More than 40 million people are newly unemployed as a result of the pandemic. According to economists at University of Massachusetts, PERI, among these newly unemployed, 25.6 million workers and their families—more than 75 million people—are also likely to be uninsured.

To contain the virus and relaunch the economy, everyone needs health care. But without employer-sponsored health insurance and a paycheck, many workers are no longer able to afford the care they need. During a pandemic, that puts all of us in danger.

Congress has already passed more than $2.7 trillion in COVID-19 stimulus funds. But, it has not yet passed legislation that will ensure no one skips or delays care because of the cost. Last month, under the leadership of  Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), the House passed legislation that would cover the cost of COBRA—health insurance that is an extension of employer coverage—for about 52 million people, 17.2 million workers and their families. This does nothing to help workers who lost their jobs but did not have employer coverage. It also does not guarantee that workers who did have employer coverage will get care, since out-of-pocket health care costs for families with employer health insurance average more than $3,000 a year.

"No member of Congress should support the COBRA proposal. It’s a multi-billion dollar gift to corporate insurers, who are profiting from the coronavirus pandemic."

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) have proposed a simple, cost-effective way to guarantee everyone who recently has lost their jobs, including those without employer coverage, health care during this pandemic. The federal government would cover their health care costs through Medicare; it would also cover any out-of-pocket costs that exceed five percent of their income. In effect, these workers and their families would have coverage that’s better than employer coverage

Both Senator Sanders’ and Representative Jayapal’s bills would remove financial and bureaucratic obstacles to needed care. In the words of Senator Sanders: "When so many people in this country are struggling economically and terrified at the thought of becoming sick, the federal government has a responsibility to take the burden of health care costs off the backs of the American people.” These bills would also make it far easier to access care, creating an open provider network.

The vast majority of the public supports the Sanders-Jayapal Medicare proposal, according to a Data for Progress poll. Nearly three in four voters (73 percent) favor having the federal government pay for people's out-of-pocket health care costs during the pandemic, including a majority of Republicans (58 percent). In fact, when voters understand the difference between the Medicare proposal and the COBRA proposal, 61 percent favor it versus 14 percent who favor the COBRA bill.

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The Medicare proposal enables people to get care from the doctors and hospitals they want to use. People don’t need to worry about whether a doctor is in-network or out. They don’t need their insurer to approve their care before they can get treatment. And, they know they won’t get a surprise medical bill because all their costs are fully covered.

Equally important, the Medicare proposal establishes a strong infrastructure for containing the novel coronavirus. It helps millions of Americans by removing barriers to care, while also creating a federal database for tracking the spread of the virus. The federal government would know where treatment and resources are most needed.

If Congress is concerned about costs, passing the Sanders-Jayapal legislation is a no-brainer. For about $93 billion, the Medicare legislation covers the full cost of three months of care for 76.8 million people. For roughly the same amount, the COBRA legislation covers the full cost of three months of care for only 51.6 million people.

It should go without saying that our health care system is broken and that Congress should guarantee care to everyone in the country. It should do so on moral grounds, it should do so on public health grounds, and it should do so to help ensure our economy gets back on track and stays back on track.

Mr. Sanders’ and Ms. Jayapal’s legislation demonstrates the value of guaranteeing everyone care through improving and expanding Medicare. If Congress passes their legislation, people would not be forced to choose between health care and other basic needs. They would not be up against a corporate health insurance system that profits from denying them care. Losing a job would not mean losing health insurance. And, the nation would be far better prepared to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus or any new virus.

No member of Congress should support the COBRA proposal. It’s a multi-billion dollar gift to corporate insurers, who are profiting from the coronavirus pandemic. And, it’s a slap in the face to their constituents, who won’t be safe so long as they can’t get the care they need.

Diane Archer

Diane Archer is president of Just Care USA, an independent digital hub covering health and financial issues facing boomers and their families and promoting policy solutions. She is the past board chair of Consumer Reports and serves on the Brown University School of Public Health Advisory Board. Ms. Archer began her career in health advocacy in 1989 as founder and president of the Medicare Rights Center, a national organization dedicated to ensuring that older and disabled Americans get the health care they need. She served as director, Health Care for All Project, Institute for America’s Future, between 2005 and 2010.

Wendell Potter

Wendell Potter

Wendell Potter is the former vice president for corporate communications at Cigna. He is now president of Business for Medicare for All and author of bestselling books Deadly Spin and Nation on the Take.

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