If there’s one truth the recent outbreak of COVID-19 has laid bare in our society, it is that for-profit healthcare must go. Millions of Americans have been laid off following the general economic shut-down, leaving them without employer-provided insurance right when the pandemic is hospitalizing thousands. Some Americans are dying of coronavirus because medical companies refuse to provide treatment without insurance. Between the 27 million Americans who were already uninsured, the 31 million Americans who are underinsured, and the estimated 35 million who will lose insurance due to the pandemic, a huge portion of American society will have to face a difficult decision if they or their family catch coronavirus – which is worse, the virus or bankruptcy?
What has been the response of the private insurers to this crisis? What have the capitalists who we’ve been forced to rely on for essential medical care been doing to address this problem? Unsurprisingly, their response hasn’t been one of concern for healthcare, but only for profit. What insurance lobbyists are asking Congress for is a bailout, threatening huge increases in premiums on working Americans if their demands aren’t met. In the middle of a public health crisis, private insurers are holding us as ransom to make more money off of our suffering, and if history is anything to go by then Republicans and Democrats in Congress will be more than happy to play along.
Though coronavirus has made our healthcare crisis hard to ignore, the issue extends far beyond this pandemic. In 2019, a full third of Americans reported that we put off treatment for a medical condition because of the cost. We go to the doctor less, die of preventable diseases more, and spend more of our lives suffering from disease while struggling with twice the healthcare costs of comparable wealthy nations. Private healthcare delivers profits, not care – and it’s killing us. We need universal free healthcare now!
Though universal healthcare systems in the United Kingdom, France, China, and South Korea are also struggling with the sheer amount of patients to treat, more people are being tested, more people are being treated, and patients don’t have to worry about the cost. With better sick leave and no co-pays or deductibles, workers can take the time off and afford to go to the doctor. Anyone – employed or unemployed, with or without symptoms – can be tested and treated. Though universal healthcare systems keep societies far healthier, capitalists have waged a war against them, attempting to defund, hamstring, and then privatize as many parts as possible. This is the case with Britain’s National Health Service (NHS), which is now facing the consequences of years of budget cuts and semi-privatization imposed by the capitalists in parliament and price-gouging from suppliers draining the budget. Capitalism’s response to the pandemic proves once again that it does not have the best interests of patients or society in mind.
In the midst of one of the largest economic crises that the United States has ever seen, faced with 26 million unemployed Americans potentially losing employer-provided health insurance, now would be the perfect time for politicians – if they really cared about working people – to expand Medicare coverage to all Americans. Instead, congressional Democrats have pushed for an expansion to COBRA, a program to allow out-of-work Americans to continue their employer-based health care for 18 months by bearing the full cost, plus an administrative percentage. During a public health crisis, with millions out of work, our government has decided that subsidizing private health insurers with our tax dollars is more important than helping working people in healthcare emergencies. Not to mention that this program does nothing for the millions among us who never had employer-provided health insurance to begin with.
Universal healthcare, under the name “Medicare for All,” has been a major issue in current presidential elections. Polls show that the majority of Americans support a universal healthcare system. So why don’t we have it? Despite the majority of Democratic Party candidates being forced by public pressure to adopt variations of “Medicare for All” in their platforms, Joe Biden, the only remaining Democratic Party contender for President has steadfastly opposed universal healthcare. Trump tried to attack Obamacare in 2017 but sparked enough push back, especially in “red” states, to prevent its repeal. Obama ran in 2008 on the promise of universal healthcare but passed – through a Democrat-controlled Congress – a bill that instead was not only not “universal,” but which also cemented the role of private for-profit insurance companies in the U.S. healthcare system. Hospitals in the US used to be semi-public until they were deregulated by Republican President Ronald Reagan in the 1980’s. It’s clear that we can’t trust Republican or Democratic politicians to win us universal health care.
Organized Workers Can Win Universal Healthcare
The first universal health care system in the world was won by organized workers in Germany in 1883. The ruling class provided a public healthcare system in hopes of pacifying workers before the powerful socialist movement overthrew capitalism as a whole. France, too, won its universal system in 1902 due to fears of working-class revolt. In Britain, their NHS was achieved at the end of World War II. The British government feared a repeat among their heavily unionized workers of the two million strong strikes that followed World War I, in which healthcare was a key demand. The NHS was a compromise to quell the workers. What the capitalist class is afraid of more than anything else is that workers will realize the power we have and will use it to reject the cruelty of capitalism and build a better world.
The horrors of the pandemic and economic crash have shown us that we need more than just a single tax-funded health insurance system that pays hospital, pharmaceutical, and other medical corporations the same outrageous rates for care we do now. We need a public healthcare system that is completely free of profit, reducing the bloated costs and vastly improving care. We need strong democratic unions to represent our healthcare workers at all levels, including nurses, doctors, sanitation, and clerical workers. No sections of the system should be carved off for private contractors. Instead, unionized workers, along with patients, should lead the fight to maintain full funding of the system, with safe staffing levels, proper training and equipment, adequate supply reserves for emergencies, and new community clinics and rural hospitals. Regular workers currently employed in the convoluted insurance and billing sectors should be provided free retraining to find new jobs that improve, rather than complicate, care. Healthcare workers should have their student debt forgiven, so that they don’t risk losing their licenses because of loan defaults or feel financially pressured to move back to the private sector. Training for future healthcare workers should be provided for free.
With a mass movement, using the power of organized workers, we can win such a National Health Service. Unions are an essential part of this, and strikes – as seen in the history of Britain’s NHS – are an incredibly powerful tool for winning the demands of working people. Strikes during the current crisis would be an even greater threat to the capitalists’ profits and social stability, and could force them to concede. But that’s not enough. Capitalists sabotage and underfund public services to force them back into the for-profit sector. The British NHS shows us that our victories will always be threatened by capitalism unless we continue the fight towards a democratically planned and worker-owned, socialist economy. Many workers today see that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans will help us through this crisis. We need to build a party of the working class, a party to fight for the working class in elections and in government, that actually stands for what workers need, including free universal healthcare now!
- Free Universal Healthcare for all, funded by taxing big business and slashing the bloated military budget!
- No furloughs, no layoffs, and no benefits cuts for hospital staff during the crisis! For proper PPE, workplace sanitation, sick leave, and hazard pay!
- Unions for all medical workers, from nurses and doctors to sanitation and clerical workers
- The quick development and full funding of a new, publicly-funded research program for developing vaccines, treatments, and cures through a government agency, bringing together the best minds and techniques to cooperate on medical research. No patenting or monopolies for private profit. All publicly-researched treatments distributed at no cost for patients! Democratic control of public health decisions including equipment manufacturing and drug and vaccine research.
- Nationalization of hospital, pharmaceutical, and medical equipment corporations.
- No budget cuts or price gouging! Full funding for universal healthcare through massive tax increases on the big corporations and the super rich.