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Coronavirus Response and Relief

Public Citizen News / May-June 2020

By Angela Bradbery

This article appeared in the May/June 2020 edition of Public Citizen News. Download the full edition here.

The coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe has highlighted major systemic problems in the U.S. – from the pitfalls of our for-profit health care system to our inadequate voter protections to the insidious corporate influence in Congress and the failings of our trade policies.

These issues lie at the heart of the organization’s mission and encompass much of its work, so staffers were able to respond quickly when COVID-19 began spreading across the U.S. The crisis prompted Public Citizen to shift into overdrive, with the organization’s policy experts, lawyers, grassroots organizers and lobbyists devoting their time to pushing for progressive solutions to problems highlighted by the pandemic. Since mid-March, the organization has:

  • Called for everyone who has lost their health insurance because of pandemic-related layoffs to be automatically enrolled in Medicare, and worked with lawmakers to do just that;
  • Poured resources into ensuring that the country can have a safe election in November (see story, page 1);
  • Pressed for any vaccine or treatment to be affordable to all, successfully pressuring drugmaker Gilead not to take advantage of the pandemic to profit (see story, page 6);
  • Conducted research showing how our trade policies have made the U.S. extremely reliant on other countries, especially China, to provide essential goods needed to combat the pandemic; (see story, page 1);
  • Assembled a large coalition working to defeat a dangerous proposal to give businesses broad immunity from COVID-related lawsuits brought by workers or customers; and
  • Worked with congressional lawmakers to ensure that bailout money is not siphoned off by wealthy corporations that don’t need it.

“The pandemic has led us to focus on key aspects of the crisis that dovetail with work we already were doing – such as pushing for Medicare for All, affordable drugs and democracy reforms, as well as curbing corporate influence over the government and protecting people’s right to access the courts,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen. “We ramped up quickly to do even more. Given the severity of the situation, we anticipate that we will be doing this work for a long time.”

Pitfalls of for-profit health care

The pandemic laid bare the folly of linking health insurance to employment. When Public Citizen News went to press, 33 million people had been laid off as a result of the pandemic. A recent report by the Urban Institute estimates that 25 million and 43 million Americans are at risk of losing, or have already lost, their health insurance, as they lose their jobs.

Even people lucky enough to have health insurance could still face large medical bills. Public Citizen researched the coronavirus-related benefits the top 25 private health insurers are offering, issuing a report showing that while most large health insurers are offering free care for coronavirus patients, their promises are riddled with confusing conditions and loopholes.

“Losing access to health care or having inadequate insurance coverage during a pandemic – when everyone who is sick should receive treatment to help curb the spread of the disease – shows just how broken our health care system is,” said Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs for Public Citizen. “With a particularly contagious and potentially lethal virus spreading rapidly, no one should avoid seeking treatment because they can’t afford it.”

The solution, Public Citizen said, is Medicare for All. In the interim, the organization pushed for Americans who lose their jobs due to the pandemic to be automatically enrolled in Medicare. Public Citizen worked with U.S. Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.), who on May 1 unveiled the Medicare Crisis Program Proposal, which would do just that.

Public Citizen’s organizers have ramped up support to activists around the country calling on their local officials to support both emergency bills and Medicare for All. Thanks to these efforts, the New Orleans City Council unanimously passed a Medicare for All resolution on May 7, joining the dozens of municipalities formally on record, with more than 300 local efforts underway from coast to coast.

Affordable Medicines

The pandemic also highlighted the need to revamp our system for developing drugs and vaccines. Life-saving medications often are developed with the help of taxpayer money. Then, drugmakers obtain lucrative patents and charge sky-high prices to the very people whose tax money helped develop the drug.

Staffers in Public Citizen’s Access to Medicines program, which has been pushing for years for systemic changes to give Americans affordable medicines, are working to ensure that any COVID-19 treatment or vaccine is affordable.

The organization determined that taxpayers have spent $70.5 million to develop remdesivir, which emerged as a promising experimental COVID-19 treatment, nearly double a previous public estimate of $37.5 million. Initially tested by Gilead as a hepatitis C treatment, remdesivir was refined, developed and evaluated by federal scientists for Ebola and coronaviruses. Public Citizen is calling for it to be priced at $1 a day.

The organization also successfully pressured the drugmaker to drop its attempt to get a special seven-year monopoly on the treatment.

And Public Citizen sent a letter on April 16 to NIH Director Francis Collins after he announced he was working to launch “an unprecedented, public-private partnership” to guide the development of COVID-19 treatments and vaccines. Public Citizen urged Collins to make accessibility and affordability key elements of the plan.

Combating Corporate Influence

For decades, one of the top items on the wish list of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has been to make it much more difficult for consumers and workers to hold corporations accountable in court for wrongdoing. When the pandemic hit, they decided to make another run at it.

In April, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and U.S. House of Representatives Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) called for businesses to be immune from liability to workers and customers for claims related to COVID-19. Although McConnell has not yet released a specific proposal, the immunity requested by businesses would cover claims by people who got sick because a business failed to take reasonable steps to protect safety, as well as claims based on retaliatory firing, defective products and sham cures, among other things.

In enacted, such a proposal would undermine consumer and worker protections and reward negligent conduct, Public Citizen maintains. Public Citizen therefore helped organize a coalition of more than 118 organizations to form the No Biz Immunity coalition to defeat any proposals that attempt to immunize businesses from liability, which would make workplaces less safe and slow down economic recovery.

“The possibility of being held accountable in court serves as a powerful incentive for businesses to operate safely and honestly,” said Allison Zieve, director of the Public Citizen Litigation Group. “Without that incentive, patients, customers, workers and the community at large are at risk. From protecting the food supply chain to preventing needless deaths in nursing homes, companies responsible for the health and safety of others must continue having every incentive to protect them.”

Corporations are looking to take advantage of the pandemic in other ways. Already, some companies took bailout money they didn’t need and had to return it. Public Citizen led 45 groups in pushing Congress to condition any additional coronavirus-related corporate bailout money on strict executive compensation limits.

“Trillions in aid should go to workers, not senior managers,” said Bartlett Naylor, financial policy advocate for Public Citizen.

Calling out Trump’s Lies

Public Citizen also has developed a rapid response operation to quickly send facts to reporters when President Donald Trump or administration officials spew lies from the White House briefing room.

Dr. Michael Carome, director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group, has been leading the charge.

“False statements from the president and some of his leading national public health experts are particularly dangerous because they will lead people to ignore critically important public health advice,” Carome said. “It appears that even the most highly respected medical experts can be corrupted to the point of spewing misinformation if they are exposed to Trump’s pernicious sphere of influence for too long. And there’s no vaccine for that.”