Opinion: Judy Amabile: Crisis reveals problems in health care and economic systems

By DAILY CAMERA GUEST OPINION | openforum@dailycamera.com | Boulder Daily CameraPUBLISHED: March 17, 2020 at 5:10 p.m. | UPDATED: March 19, 2020 at 10:03 a.m.

The new coronavirus got our undivided attention last week and shifted American life in startling ways. Now is a critical moment. Our willingness to practice strict socially distancing — or not — will determine the trajectory of infections and deaths in our community in the days and weeks to come.

When the illness fades and we begin to recover from its financial havoc, we will have opportunities to fix problems it has revealed in our health and economic systems. The U.S. for-profit, health-care-for-some system is ill-equipped to handle a public health emergency like this one. Gov. Jared Polis has acted swiftly and provided real leadership here in Colorado, but the agonizingly slow response to the coronavirus at the federal level has left us in a more dire situation.

Those who get sick and need medical help will be billed at rates that vary wildly, depending on place and provider. In Colorado, about half the people who get a surprise medical bill for $500 or more will be in deep financial distress. This damage ripples to every realm of our economy.

Right now, 360,000 Coloradans have no health insurance. Even if you do, an insurance card in your wallet is no great guarantee. You can pay upwards of $15,000 annually for an insurance policy with deductibles, co-pays and other out-of-pocket costs that make it unaffordable to use.

Surprise “balance billing” by out-of-network hospital contractors have brought well-insured patients to the brink in all kinds of medical crises, and the coronavirus will be no exception. Patients will have little choice in the matter, life-or-death situations being what they are.

The problems cut deeper still. While the coronavirus testing may be “free,” coverage for associated costs and treatment are not included. This is a huge barrier to seeking treatment, resulting in poor outcomes and greater spread of the disease.

It is clearer than ever that all people need affordable access to quality medical care. Colorado should transition to a single-payer health care system and disconnect health care from employment status.

Coronavirus has also clarified an urgent need to bolster our economic resilience. Twenty-six percent of Americans have no emergency savings. Only 18% have enough saved to cover expenses for six months or more. Twenty-six million American workers have no paid sick leave. Working people are one illness or accident away from financial disaster. Wages have not kept up with the cost of health care, housing, childcare, education and more.

Deficiencies like these will create a terrible choice for many hourly and gig workers in the weeks to come — whether to go to work sick and spread the virus, or forgo the paycheck their families can’t afford to lose. What would you do?

We must have paid family and medical leave that covers all working people in Colorado. A social insurance model allows everyone to be covered at an affordable cost for workers and for businesses. It’s time to stop resisting a strategy that has proven successful in every other civilized nation and in several other states here in America.

Many other facets of our society are creating economic injustices that undermine us every day, but especially in times of crisis. I’m talking about societal pillars that should be strong in a wealthy and privileged nation. Things like health care, housing, education, transportation, union safeguards, criminal justice, internet access, and banking fairness, to name a few.

People without homes, for example, will suffer intensely if the virus spreads in that community. They are catastrophically vulnerable, and there is no excuse. With real mental health resources, more affordable housing, and greater sheltering options, we could solve a host of health and safety issues.

The overarching focus of the past 30 years on limited government, union obliteration, and low corporate taxes has paid off for the very rich. It’s long past time to rebalance our economy in favor of working people. We need to embrace good governance, the reality of science, and the truth of expert data.

We have many levers to help those who least prosper in our state. It is big and hard, but we must act. All of us are harmed and much more vulnerable by having left so many behind. The coronavirus may be a primer for the acute challenges a warmer climate is already bringing our way. Now is the time to act.

Judy Amabile is a former member of the Daily Camera Editorial Advisory Board and a candidate for Colorado House District 13 in the 2020 election.