According to a study, a universal healthcare system could have saved 338,000 lives by preventing nearly one third of deaths due to COVID-19 infection through March 2022. A single-payer health care system would also have saved the nation an estimated $105.6 billion in health care costs associated with COVID treatments and hospitalizations, leading the study’s authors to conclude that universal health care, often called “Medicare for All,” is both a moral and financial imperative for policymakers.
Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA The studyYou can also find out more about a companion analysis are a stunning indictment of what their authors describe as a “fragmented and inefficient” health care system that leaves millions of people uninsured and underinsured every year. Americans spend more money on health care than people living in any other nation, but the U.S. has sustained 16 percent of COVID’s global “mortality burden” while only representing 4 percent of the world’s population.
James Kahn, a professor of health policy at the University of California, San Francisco, and a co-author of the study, said the modeling and analysis present a precise estimate of the massive human and financial costs “imposed on the U.S. population by the lack of universal insurance” during the pandemic. Even in non-pandemic year, a single-payer healthcare system would prevent tens or thousands of deaths annually.
“Placing the profits of private insurers over the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans is obscene,” Kahn said in a statement this week.
Researchers compared the risk of death from COVID to other conditions for insured and uninsured population and concluded that Medicare for All could’ve saved 131.4438 people from dying from COVID during 2020, when it was rampant across the country.
About 28 million Americans did not have any health insurance before COVID. Another 9 million lost their insurance coverage after losing jobs during the pandemic. Millions more are uninsured and have high out-of pocket costs for prescriptions or medical care.
Uninsured people are more likely than others to develop diabetes, such as type 2, because they don’t have a primary physician who can spot potential health problems early. This can complicate a COVID infection, increase the risk for death, and delay in seeking medical treatment.
The study found that people who are uninsured or underinsured are more likely not to seek treatment immediately. They also tend to delay seeking treatment, trying to avoid paying too much, and are more likely, during a virus pandemic to contract COVID-19 and become seriously ill. Lower-income and frontline workers may also show up to work sick if they worry about losing income or their employer’s health coverage, one reason why advocates say the government must guarantee paid sick leave for all workers along with health coverage.
Opponents to Medicare for All claim a single-payer model would be too costly. But, once again, researchers have found that privatized health care and insurance are far less efficient and require more spending. After taking into account the cost of insurance for everyone in the U.S., this study shows that universal healthcare would result in a net saving of $438 billion in a non-pandemic years. In 2020, which was the first year of the pandemics, $459 billion in healthcare costs would have been avoided.
In a comment published at Health Justice Monitor, Kahn said the study’s modeling determined that the current health care system wasted half a trillion dollars in 2020 thanks to “ongoing inefficiency.”
“Health care access leads to earlier diagnosis, with better treatment and reduced transmission, as well as stronger prevention such as higher vaccination rates,” Kahn wrote. “Promises of special insurance coverage for COVID fall short when individuals don’t know about it, and when implementation is seriously flawed. Fewer cases also mean lower hospital burdens that may compromise quality of care.”
Medicare for all would reduce administrative costs by eliminating private insurance companies’ bureaucracy. This could also reduce health care spending, which can be diverted to advertising and legal expenses. The government, as the primary and universal provider for health coverage, would have enormous negotiating power over the prices of pharmaceuticals, medical equipment, and related fees. This would encourage market efficiency and lower costs across the board.
Ann Keller, an associate professor of health policy and management at the University of California, Berkeley, notes that disturbing levels of preventable death during the pandemic may actually underestimate the costs of the current system’s failures. The study does not take into account lower rates of chronic disease associated with single-payer systems elsewhere.
“Having consistent access to care can prevent chronic disease from occurring and can ensure that patients who develop chronic disease have it better managed,” said Keller, who was not involved in the research, in an interview with Scientific American. “I would think that, if one took that into account, the estimates of avoided deaths would be greater than the numbers reported here.”