There’s Never Been a Better Time for Us to End Private Health Insurance Than Right Now

The coronavirus crisis will lead to health insurance premium increases by up to 40 percent next year. We can’t afford that. Instead of seeing premiums skyrocket or bailing out private health companies, we need to seize this moment to abolish private insurance and create a single, national insurance plan.

Hospital equipment is seen in an emergency field hospital to aid in the COVID-19 pandemic in Central Park on March 30, 2020 in New York City. Stephanie Keith / Getty

The US health care system is going to be overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic for months to come. But when the spread of the virus finally does subside, many of its impacts will be here to stay. With millions of Americans likely to need expensive hospital stays this year, our nationwide health care costs are expected to increase by as much as $251 billion, according to a new analysis. As a result, US health insurance premiums could rise by up to 40 percent in 2021, exacerbating a crisis of ever-increasing costs that already leave Americans paying far more for care than the people of any other country.

What this means is that we’re about to hit a fork in the road with the private insurance industry. The coronavirus is shredding insurers’ profits right now, underlining the fact that private insurance is simply not built to handle a medical crisis. Having to cover a surge of expensive treatment — and, in some cases, having to waive co-pays —  is antithetical to the premise of for-profit insurance. Saddled with these unexpected costs, private insurers’ only alternative to drastically raising our premiums will be to request a massive government bailout to avoid bankruptcy.

Allowing private companies to bankroll our health care system has always been a terrible policy choice, but the horror of this approach is about to become even more evident. Hiking premiums in the midst of a devastating pandemic to make up for their losses is an act of cruelty, to be sure. But it’s also the only logical act for companies whose sole purpose is to chase accrescent profits.

Instead of allowing our premiums to skyrocket or bailing out a heartless industry with public funds, thereby prolonging a profit-driven nightmare, we need to seize this watershed moment by taking the step many Americans have demanded for over a century. It’s time to abolish the private insurance industry and create a single, national insurance plan in its place.

Now Is the Time

There has never been a more obvious moment to take the leap to single-payer health care. The familiar arguments against it, disingenuous in the first place, are suddenly outwardly ridiculous and easy to refute.

Joe Biden has been using his scarce media appearances to assure viewers that he still opposes Medicare for All, Bernie Sanders’s popular single-payer plan that would comprehensively cover all Americans at no out-of-pocket cost. But his arguments — that Medicare for All would be too expensive, that it would disrupt people’s employer-sponsored coverage, and that it would bring too large a change from the status quo — no longer carry the weight they once did. Even CNN’s Anderson Cooper recently pressed Biden to explain how his health care plan would solve the problems made evident by the current pandemic.

On the question of cost, Sanders and his fellow Medicare for All advocates have long argued that single-payer health care will cost substantially less than our current system. This is backed up by virtually every major economic analysis of his plan, although these studies have long been ignored by Medicare for All’s opponents in Congress and the media. But they become harder to ignore the more expensive the current system gets — and a massive hike in premiums or a major government bailout will only underscore Sanders’s argument further.

As for the criticism that Medicare for All would throw people off their employer-sponsored insurance, it’s a bit more difficult to defend this argument when the country is projected to possibly reach its highest ever levels of unemployment. The major flaw in tethering health care to employment has never been clearer: workers are constantly at risk of losing their employer-sponsored insurance.

Now it’s happening on a mass scale — millions of Americans have already lost their jobs during the pandemic, and it’s only going to get worse.

Liberals have spent the last decade celebrating the fact that the Affordable Care Act lowered the number of uninsured people in the United States from 44 million to a still-astonishing 28 million. Suddenly, that modest improvement is being reversed. Because we’ve relied on a fragile method of coverage instead of a bulletproof approach of automatic, universal enrollment in a public plan, all of the progress made by liberals is subject to erasure by a single crisis.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to building the public demand for Medicare for All has been the mere fact that it will bring a major disruption to the status quo. The concept of socializing one-sixth of the US economy — which is what Medicare for All entails — has been used to frighten those wary of change.

But the pandemic has already disrupted the status quo. We no longer face a choice between keeping things as they were and implementing a major change. Change is coming, no matter what, and it’s our choice whether we respond to it by using public funds to prop up a broken system that constantly kills and bankrupts Americans in the name of profit, or by using those same funds to create a stable, single-payer program designed in the interest of public health.

Don’t Bail Out an Industry That Shouldn’t Exist

We’ve already tried bailouts. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) was essentially a bailout in that it heavily subsidized insurance companies in order to get them to take measures that otherwise would not be sufficiently profitable. In fact, the government continues to pump hundreds of billions of public dollars each year into the industry to protect its profits.

It’s a broken approach no matter the scale. But what’s coming will be massive — it will make the ACA subsidies look incredibly meager. We cannot allow such a historic bailout of an industry that should not exist in the first place.

The logical fix to the problems of our health care system has always been to implement a single, national insurer. Instead of profit, we need to prioritize public health and well-being. Even when we’re not facing such a monumental crisis, our current system causes millions to suffer, physically and financially.

But this crisis has brought us to a unique crossroads. With our health care providers crying out for the help they need, with millions finding themselves suddenly uninsured, and with the insurance industry proving itself fundamentally incapable of protecting public health, we have the opportunity to choose a better way.

It’s long past time for single-payer health care. We’ve been demanding it for more than a century — people have fought their entire lives and died without ever seeing it become a reality. But we’ve never had a moment quite like this, where the flaws and shortcomings of our long-standing multi-payer system are so abundantly clear.

So let’s make our demand even clearer: instead of bailing out the industry that murders and bankrupts us and our families, let’s erase the industry altogether and take health coverage into public hands through a Medicare for All, single-payer program.