The Coronavirus Is Challenging What Our Politicians Think About 'Medicare For All'

President Trump and Republicans seem open to reimbursing hospitals for treating the uninsured.

WASHINGTON ― With the coronavirus spreading across the globe, U.S. politicians seem to be rethinking some of their most dearly held beliefs about socialized medicine.

A Department of Health and Human Services official told a Senate committee Tuesday that the administration is considering how it could pay hospitals to treat uninsured coronavirus, or COVID-19, patients. And Republicans in Congress ― some of whom have spent their entire political careers railing against Obamacare and socialized medicine ― are sounding supportive of the idea.

“You can look at it as socialized medicine,” Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) told HuffPost on Tuesday. “But in the face of an outbreak, a pandemic, what’s your options?”

Yoho, one of the most anti-Obamacare lawmakers in Congress, said it would be a “wise thing” for the government to pay for testing and treatment of the uninsured, while also saying he’s “not OK with socialized medicine.”

“Sometimes you have to do things that you have to do for your country, but as far as socialized medicine, no,” Yoho said. “Does this fall into that? Yeah, I guess you could throw it in there, but hopefully it’s not the long-term.”

Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.), chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, said he hadn’t heard about the administration possibly covering coronavirus hospital costs, but he didn’t exactly sound opposed.

“I think a pandemic is a distinct issue from the overall health care proposals that have been on the table for a while,” Johnson said. “We have to put politics aside and address the problem.”

And another Republican, Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), also told HuffPost he would support extraordinary measures to stop the spread of the virus. “I mean, this is a crisis right now, so we got to respond in any way that’s going to fix the problem,” he said.

Fitzpatrick also agreed that the coronavirus was challenging some of the arguments for our current health care system. “No doubt about it,” Fitzpatrick said.

The Trump administration official who testified Tuesday ― Robert Kadlec, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response at HHS ― said the government could treat coronavirus victims as federal disaster patients, and therefore pay hospitals for their care at an above-Medicare rate.

“We are in conversations ― initial conversations with [the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services] to understand if that could be utilized in this way,” Kadlec said.

Robert Kadlec, assistant secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) at the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS), and Robert R. Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, take part in a House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee hearing on Health and Human Services oversight of the coronavirus outbreak on Feb. 26, 2020.
Robert Kadlec, assistant secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) at the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS), and Robert R. Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, take part in a House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee hearing on Health and Human Services oversight of the coronavirus outbreak on Feb. 26, 2020.
Amanda Voisard / Reuters

Under the Stafford Act, the president can mobilize federal resources by declaring an emergency or a disaster. And if President Trump decided it was in the public’s interest to offer free testing and treatment, in part to curb the spread of the disease, he could do so without Congress.

“We’re going to be looking at the uninsured to see if we can help them out,” Trump said Tuesday, potentially referring to this idea.

In an emergency, HHS and the Defense Department can activate a National Disaster Medical System to respond to requests from states to pay for some hospital costs. Still, Congress would likely end up playing a role. Even though the disaster medical system was activated in response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Haiti earthquake in 2010, Congress wound up appropriating extra funds to reimburse hospitals.

Congress could fund the treatment and testing for the uninsured in an emergency spending bill that is expected to pass the House and Senate this week. And if such a provision made it into the bill, Republicans and Democrats would almost certainly vote for the idea overwhelmingly.

True to form, it wasn’t just Republicans selectively embracing socialized medicine for this public health emergency. Moderate Democrats also liked the idea of the government paying for treatment and testing.

“Regardless of what you call it, it sounds like the right thing to do,” Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.), who opposes “Medicare for All,” told HuffPost.

Lamb was hesitant to draw any larger point from a public health emergency like coronavirus. “This is pretty clearly an emergency,” he said. “So I probably wouldn’t draw any general political lessons from it.” But it’s easy to see how politicians embracing this idea could lead to more openness for socialized medicine.

Other Democratic moderates HuffPost talked to on Tuesday were cautious about supporting free testing and treatment, particularly when it was framed as a form of socialized medicine. But they weren’t necessarily opposed. Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) said the key thing was to “keep our hospitals afloat,” and Rep. Joe Cunningham (D-S.C.) refused to side one way or the other without knowing more details.

“It kind of comes down to the details,” he said.

Progressives in Congress, however, were very ready to endorse free testing and treatment, and they said there was a lesson to draw from coronavirus.

“It absolutely is an argument for Medicare for All,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) told HuffPost Tuesday.

Ocasio-Cortez contended that if the government thought coronavirus was important enough to socialize care, “then what makes coronavirus different from so many other diseases, particularly ones that are transmissible?”

“What this crisis has taught us is that, our health care system and our public health are only as strong as the sickest person in this country,” she said.

Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) also thought there was a lesson from the coronavirus, and he argued the Trump administration often embraced socialism; it was just situational ― whether it be direct payments to farmers affected by the president’s trade war, tax cuts for the wealthy, or now, potentially, free testing and treatment for the coronavirus.

“For a guy throwing socialist rocks,” Huffman said, “Trump lives in a glass dacha.”

Fellow California Democrat Rep. Ro Khanna was also emphatic that coronavirus was a case study in why Medicare for All is important.

“This just highlights in extreme what’s happening every day. I mean, think about if we had better testing and treatment for the flu or other diseases,” Khanna said.

He added that the government should want treatments and tests to be at no cost to the patient because diseases are communicable, and that the current for-profit system disincentivizes people from going to the doctor and getting tested.

“The reality is, there are a lot of people that are thinking, ‘I don’t want a couple-thousand-dollar bill to get tested or to get treated,’” Khanna said. “That’s going to hurt all of us.”

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