By the end of July 2020, around 30 million Americans had been fired or furloughed and left to face the daunting experience of trying to file for unemployment in a system overwhelmed with applications. But unemployment is not the only thing Americans have to worry about in the face of the coronavirus pandemic—many of those 30 million no longer have access to even remotely affordable healthcare.
Healthcare in the United States is largely privatized, with a few primary public options—namely Medicare and Medicaid—that provide for the elderly, those with disabilities, and those living under the poverty line who do not have access to private insurance.
While this system was by no means perfect, or even sufficient at times—Americans with private insurance were still stuck with massive medical bills, and those with public insurance often had to face the bureaucratic inefficiencies of a government system in need of reform—many Americans still had some form of healthcare, and that was at times enough for the average family to get by pre-coronavirus.
But then the coronavirus came and devastated the American economy. As social distancing regulations were implemented across the country, many businesses had to close their doors and lay off workers. Despite some government efforts to provide small businesses with aid to help keep their workers on the payroll, the inefficiency of the government rollout paired with the financial tension of having to pay rent for business space and paying workers meant that by the end of May 2020, millions of companies across the country had closed and more than 40 million Americans had fallen through the cracks. While some were able to find new work, more than 30 million were not so fortunate.
Such was the case for my aunt, who had been a director at a mid-sized private company in St. Louis, Missouri. She had worked there for over 20 years, rising through the ranks to become a senior staff member, and had been working from home for 7 days before her company announced their furloughs, which included most of the senior staff in her department. According to her boss, the cutting of the senior staff was a move meant to satisfy the company president’s request to cut spending by a certain amount, since meeting that request would require either the furloughing of a handful of senior staff or many more junior staff.
As difficult an experience as that was for her, a worse realization was to come: she was in danger of losing her health insurance. While she still had her healthcare for the time being, if her company decided they needed to cut down their staff even more to lessen their increasing financial tension, she could be risking her life. My aunt has insulin-dependent diabetes, making her much more vulnerable to COVID-19, and if she did not have health insurance she would have to pay all of the hospital bills for her care if she contracted it. Even if she were able to isolate herself and avoid contracting the coronavirus, she would still not be able to afford the insulin that she depends on if she lost her health insurance.
Facing a difficult decision, my aunt chose to be practical. She had been engaged for several months to a man who had been fortunate enough to hold onto his job at a factory in the area. Their products were deemed essential, so he was still working and, thus, still had his healthcare benefits. They had been in the process of planning a larger wedding before coronavirus hit, but they made the choice to get married over Zoom so that my aunt and her children could be put on his health insurance as soon as possible.
My family and I joined their Zoom reception from 1,000 miles away, listening and watching with tearful eyes as they said their vows and exchanged rings from the safety of their living room and the minister guided them through the process from the tranquility of her backyard. As beautiful as it was, I couldn’t help but find the whole situation frustrating and disappointing.
As it turned out, my aunt was right to worry about the future of her health insurance. Not long after she was furloughed, she was officially laid off, finding herself in a difficult position that so many Americans find themselves in now. While she is grateful to have health insurance, the job market is so tight that she cannot find work anywhere, leading to a whole host of other challenges as she tries to provide for her family.
This is the reality of life in America. Healthcare here is so vital—yet the system is so draconian and impossible to navigate—that being without it makes it next to impossible for many Americans to survive. Being without healthcare deprived my aunt of her wedding and could have cost her her life, and it has been threatening the livelihoods of Americans since well before COVID-19. According to CNBC, an average of 530,000 American families file for bankruptcy every year, 66.5 percent of them because of the cost of healthcare, whether from ridiculously high medical bills or being out of work to receive treatment.
Many Americans have supported private health insurance because the narrative that has dominated coverage of the subject is that if Americans are working and supporting the economy, their healthcare is covered. However, the coronavirus has highlighted the fatal flaw in this belief: Americans can be willing to work—even desperate, in this case—but unable to in an economy so devastated that there is no work to be found. What then? If being worthy of health insurance is dependent on economic output, does that mean that those 30 million and their families are unworthy?
While I am not advocating for any particular solution, one thing is abundantly clear: the system as it is does not work. It was wholly unprepared to handle anything of the magnitude of COVID-19, and as we as a society move forward into an unknowable future, a system as unadaptive and rigid as private insurance in the United States will most definitely continue to fall short, often with deadly consequences.