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Medicare for All is a ‘Racial Equity Policy’

Winning Medicare for All would be an essential step in preventing needless pain and suffering in communities of color

By James Smathers

Medicare for All Racial Justice

More than 115,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus pandemic and millions are infected – but the pandemic doesn’t cut equally. Communities of color – particularly Black Americans – are being ill and dying at disproportionately high rates under our profit-driven health care system. Myriad factors – including systemic racism – are responsible for this but Medicare for All would go a long way to address some of the most acute disparities.

Black Americans make up about 13% of the U.S. population but constitute about 23% of COVID-19  deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Some states are experiencing worse COVID-19 disparities than others. Black Michiganders for example make up just 14% of the state’s population but account for a whopping 40% of coronavirus deaths—a rate more than four times higher than that of white Michiganders, according to the state government.

Similarly, in Wisconsin, Black Wisconsinites make up 27% of those who have died from the disease but account for only about 6% of the state’s population.

As a result of systemic racism, a complicated set of factors put communities of color at a greater risk of contracting COVID-19. For example, Black Americans are more likely to live in communities where access to healthy and affordable food is scarce – neighborhoods deemed “food deserts” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Residents of these areas have higher levels of diabetes and heart disease, making them more vulnerable to COVID-19.

Health issues are also exacerbated by the failure of our health care system to provide adequate insurance coverage for Black and Brown communities in the U.S. According to a 2016 federal study, both groups have similar insurance rates through childhood. However, once individuals turn 20, people of color are much more likely to become uninsured, and that disparity lasts until they reach the age of 65 and qualify for Medicare, when uninsured rates drop to almost zero.

Disparities in health and health care are endemic across the health care system and cost lives. For example, due to a myriad number of systemic factors, Black women are three to four times more likely to die during childbirth than white women. A 2018 study from Maternal Mortality Review, a nonprofit working to prevent maternal death, found that more than 60% of pregnancy-related deaths are preventable.

Having a health care system where your access to care is dependent on your employment status is especially cruel during an economic meltdown spurred by a historic. Communities of color, particularly Black and Brown communities, been hit especially hard by job losses during the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to increased uninsured rates, which were already disproportionately high before the pandemic. It’s unconscionable that tens of millions of people have been kicked off their insurance plans during a global pandemic.

Medicare for All would guarantee that everyone in the U.S. can get the health care they need regardless of their ability to pay. They would be able to receive that care with the doctor or hospital of their choice, as  there would be no more out-of-network care.

In February 2020, U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) described Medicare for All as “a racial equity policy,” and said, “True justice does not discriminate based on their race, ability or economic status. Medicare for All is what true justice looks like.” Omar later said, “Medicare for all directs research and resources to improve health equity at the state and national level for medically underserved populations.”

Racial justice organizations have been on the front lines on improving the health care system and many such organizations, including the NAACP, Black Women’s Health Imperative, League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and United We Dream, strongly support Medicare for All. Many of these organizations have been fighting for health care justice for decades, including the National Medical Association – which itself was formed in part due to the racist policies of the AMA not allowing Black doctors to join at the turn – playing a key role in the passage of the original Medicare and Medicaid programs.

“Communities of color need a health care system that rectifies these long-standing structural biases and challenges. Medicare for All is that system,” the groups wrote in a letter to Congress. “Medicare for All universal health care would support the health and economic security of patients of color, including finally providing full health coverage for all reproductive health services, alongside controlling the costs of prescription drugs – both glaring affordability and access issues for low and moderate-income patients of color.”

The Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), a coalition of groups representing members of the Black community, has explicitly called for universal health care through Medicare for All.

Medicare for All is just one step in the broader fight for racial justice and must be part of a broader movement to address racism in health care and throughout society,  but the policy would be an essential step in helping address health disparities and moving toward health care justice.