Matt Slonaker: Pandemic can push us to face failings in our health care system

The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented global crisis. Unprecedented challenges require unprecedented actions — from us as individuals and from our elected officials. We must all work together to think big and take appropriate steps to mitigate the economic and health impacts of this crisis.

While doing this, it is important to pay special attention to those in our communities that have the highest need and are especially vulnerable to this crisis. We all play a critical role in working through this and overcoming it.

Our health care system is entrenched in inequities and was designed to have winners and losers. If you have more money, then you have better access to health care, which increases your likelihood of good health and, in turn, brings you back to better employment and more money.

Public health emergencies like COVID-19 pay no mind to this designation of winners and losers. Everyone is at risk from COVID-19, whether you contract the novel coronavirus or not. The global economy is facing huge losses that will impact us all.

Though our health care system is not to blame for the origins of the virus, it is on the hook to find the solution. We are hamstrung by a slow and disjointed government response, a high uninsured rate and unaffordable health care.

Navigating the health care system is incredibly difficult, even in the best of times. Unaffordable premiums and deductibles, bureaucratic paperwork barriers, unexpected benefit changes and in-network versus out-of-network coverage make accessing needed care a major challenge. The COVID-19 pandemic crisis is exacerbating these issues and other weaknesses in our health care system, like the outright unaffordable nature of it.

However, there are still specific actions the state and federal government can take to close gaps and protect the health and safety of our communities.

During emergencies, the state and federal government have expanded authority to implement policy changes within a much faster timeframe. Hospitals, insurance companies and other health system stakeholders must act quickly as well.

Below are four general recommendations that can make a huge difference. See www.healthpolicyproject.org for a full detailed report.

1. Improve access to/reduce barriers to health insurance coverage.

2. Ensure robust outreach to encourage enrollment in health insurance.

3. Improve access to testing, treatment, and affordable health care.

4. Improve emergency access to providers, prescriptions and services.

A recent poll in Utah found 9 in 10 Utahns, across party lines, support a broad array of government interventions to address health care system issues. The key principle in that research is that while Utah is a generally conservative state and leans towards less government intervention, Utahns also understand that the system doesn’t always work on the side of consumers. They want their leaders to intervene.

Health experts have long said it would take something cataclysmic to move the United States toward universal coverage, or a type of single-payer system. Maybe COVID-19 is that cataclysm.

The current health care system, including all of the stakeholders — private industry, government programs and public health systems — must put consumers’ needs first to address this crisis head on. The is the ultimate test for our current system, and lessons learned will determine its fate.

Matt Slonaker

Matt Slonaker is executive director of the Utah Health Policy Project, a statewide nonpartisan, nonprofit health care policy and consumer advocate organization.