For-Profit Health Care Cost Thousands of Americans Their Lives

Public Citizen News

By Mike Stankiewicz

The U.S.’s corporate, profit-driven health care system has likely cost thousands of Americans their lives and a single-payer health care system would better prepare the U.S. for the next pandemic.

These are the findings of a new Public Citizen report that lays out how the for-profit health care system has left the U.S. vulnerable and underprepared for the COVID-19 pandemic, and how a single-payer, public health insurance system in which all Americans are covered could have helped the U.S. response to the crisis.

With about half of Americans receiving their health care through their employer, more than 22 million Americans lost their jobs and their insurance at the worst possible time. This added to the approximately 87 million Americans uninsured or underinsured going into the pandemic. Although federal programs covered COVID-19-related care, many uninsured people didn’t know that.

Additionally, hospitals focused on profits and revenue were not able to accommodate the millions of American patients sick with COVID-19, while safety net hospitals that have closed in recent years left many communities without a provider.

But these problems existed long before COVID-19, evidenced most startlingly in the high number of Americans with no or inadequate insurance.  Racial health disparities, including access to care, have led to disproportionate deaths in communities of color due to COVID-19, reflecting similar disparities before the pandemic. The U.S. also has the highest rate of unmet need of any comparably wealthy country, with one-third of Americans reporting that they or a family member has avoided going to the doctor when sick or injured in the past year due to cost.

“The pandemic has shown how wide the gaps in our health care system remain and how easy it is for families to fall through them. Millions of Americans were already suffering unnecessarily prior to the pandemic and this disease just exacerbated the challenges people face,” said Eagan Kemp, Public Citizen’s health care policy advocate.

Under Medicare for All, no American would have to skip care because they couldn’t afford it and no employee, nor their families, would need to worry about losing their coverage if they lose their job. Hospitals would receive the funds they need to stay open via yearly budgets instead of relying on admission rates and elective procedures. People of color would also no longer face disproportionately high rates of uninsurance, reducing an important contributor to racial disparities in access to health care.

“We need to be prepared for the next pandemic, and we can’t be under the current for-profit system that prioritizes profits over people,” added Kemp.

Despite the clear benefits of Medicare for All, the U.S. remains the only one of the 25 wealthiest countries to not provide universal health care, and the health care system’s focus on profits over patients’ health has cost Americans their lives.

These startling realities have renewed the urgency for Medicare for All, and Public Citizen is mobilizing with Congressional allies and activists across the country to build the movement we need to win.

On March 17, U.S. Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) introduced the Medicare for All Act of 2021 at a virtual town hall, where Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, was a featured speaker.

“Amid the worst acute public health crisis in generations, the current insurance system failed massively,” Weissman said. “Millions lost their health insurance and health insurer profits soared. Hospitals and providers, operating with just-in-time systems and investments oriented to expensive treatments rather than public health, were less well equipped to absorb the pandemic demands than they should have been.”

Public Citizen has supported single-payer health care since its founding nearly 50 years ago. In addition to Medicare for All, Public Citizen has been pushing to improve and expand Medicare as part of the needed stimulus packages currently being debated. Ahead of President Joe Biden’s American Families Plan, Public Citizen, along with almost 50 other groups, called on the president and Congressional leadership to include bold drug pricing reforms in the package, which would save $450 billion in 10 years, and then to use those savings to improve Medicare by adding dental, vision, and hearing benefits as well as adding an out-of-pocket cap on expenses and lowering the eligibility age to 50.

“Far too many Americans have lost their insurance or put off needed care due to the COVID-19 crisis,” said Melinda St. Louis, Public Citizen’s Medicare for All campaign director. “Expanding Medicare to every American will better protect us against the next pandemic and save countless American lives. Through grassroots organizing in cities, towns, and counties in red, blue, and purple states, we are bringing new local officials, businesses, unions, and members of Congress into our Medicare for All movement.”