With the Biden Administration ready to let the COVID-19 National Emergency expire on May 11, millions of people in the U.S. risk losing Medicaid coverage.
The federal Public Health Emergency (PHE) was declared in March 2020 in response to the pandemic; the PHE expanded eligibility requirements for Medicaid and provided access to free COVID-19 vaccinations, testing kits and treatment, and it increased SNAP food stamp benefits. This gave working people a degree of security from the financial devastation caused by the capitalist state’s COVID-19 response. But these basic safeguards are now under attack by the U.S. ruling class.
The cuts to PHE programs come while the federal government spends hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out failing financial institutions, such as Silicon Valley Bank and First Republic Bank, and to bankroll the imperialist proxy war in Ukraine.
Although PHE Medicaid coverage was already set to expire when the COVID-19 National Emergency officially ends May 11, bourgeois politicians connived to slash it ahead of schedule. The Omnibus Federal Spending Bill, which passed with bipartisan support in December 2022, includes a provision allowing states to terminate their Medicaid coverage by April 1.
Five states — Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, New Hampshire and South Dakota — have already started throwing vulnerable residents off state Medicaid rolls, and 14 other states will follow suit next month.
About 15 million people in the U.S. risk losing their Medicaid coverage as a result of capitalist austerity measures, including over 5 million children. Of those people, 30% are Latiné and 15% are Black. These disparities lay bare the racism inherent in the U.S. health care system, which, as Dr. Margaret Flowers, a single-payer health care activist and adviser to the board for Physicians for a National Healthcare Program pointed out in a recent interview, has “been a racist system from its very onset.” (popularresistance.org)
‘Normalizing’ the pandemic
Many people are unaware that their coverage is ending, and health care and child welfare organizations are rushing to get the word out and find resources to fill the chasm left by the end of Medicaid coverage.
“We worry we are going to have a rash of situations, where someone shows up at an emergency room and realizes they’re not covered,” said Kelley Murphy, interim president and CEO of the Children’s Action Alliance. (Washington Post, April 1)
The U.S. government’s decision to end PHE Medicaid coverage is part of its ongoing campaign to “normalize” the pandemic, which continues to infect, disable and kill around 1700 people every week and disproportionately affects Black, Latiné, Asian and Native communities, and people with disabilities.
According to a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, at least 7.5% of adults in the U.S. report having long COVID symptoms. Millions of workers who continue to suffer from these disabling conditions lack mandated sick leave and paid time off. (cdc.gov)
With COVID-19 raging unchecked, life expectancy in the U.S. has plummeted from almost 78.8 years in 2020 to 76.1 years in 2021. The fall in life expectancy is even more stark for communities of color. “When you look at who dies, it’s three to four times more likely that a person of color is going to be infected, is going to die,” said Flowers.
Such a massive loss of health coverage only worsens the catastrophe caused by the U.S. privatized health care system, in which over 30 million citizens are already uninsured. Even those who do have insurance often have to pay enormous premiums and out-of-pocket health care expenses. Many have no choice but to take on crushing medical debt, which remains the number one cause of bankruptcy in the U.S.
For-profit health care companies exploit crisis
The ongoing suffering caused by the pandemic has generated record-breaking profits for the health care industry. UnitedHealth Group Inc., the largest health insurer in the world, made $20.6 billion in earnings in 2022, and its stock price has soared to record heights.
Meanwhile, Big Pharma is cashing in by gouging prices for COVID-19 vaccinations, treatment and testing, which the federal government is no longer covering. Moderna alone plans to charge $130 per vaccine dose, while Pfizer will hike the price of its Paxlovid antiviral medication to well over $530 per patient. Bebtelovimab, a monoclonal antibody treatment produced by Eli Lilly, now costs over $2,000 per patient.
This windfall of health care blood money will only increase as the millions of people kicked off Medicaid have no choice but to pay for private insurance — either through employer plans or the grossly inadequate options offered by the Affordable Healthcare Act market.
Exploiting the desperation for replacement coverage, UnitedHealth expects to expand its privatized plans, which target seniors and people with low incomes. Millions more lack access to even these meager substitutes and can expect no help from a government which has made it clear that it values corporate profits over human needs.
The loss of Medicaid amid the ongoing pandemic underscores the need to dismantle the system of for-profit medicine. As Flowers emphasized, “We need to understand that health is fundamental — it’s connected to everything — and that there is no incremental way we can do this.” Free health care, and a response to the ongoing pandemic that treats it as the dire crisis it is, are necessary conditions for creating a future where all human lives have value and are not merely price tags.
“It’s fundamental, it’s education, organizing, connecting this to other issues and putting pressure and taking action on our own communities,” said Flowers. “These are the things we need to, at every level, be doing.”
Workers World Party Boston is putting Dr. Flowers’ words into practice by participating in a May 11 action at the Massachusetts State House to protest the end of the PHE emergency and demand an end to the state and federal governments’ planned austerity.
Making such a future a reality ultimately requires revolutionary workers’ solidarity and mobilization.