Paul Gibbs: COVID-19 shows how universal health care is necessary

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cars are directed in to the tent for drive-thru testing at the Timpanogos Regional Medical Center in Orem, Tuesday April 7, 2020

A few weeks ago, I developed a persistent cough.

Due to seasonal allergies, this is not unusual for me at this time of year. But, as such a cough is a well-known symptom of COVID-19, I was concerned.

Because my immune system is compromised by the medications I have to take for a transplanted kidney, I’m at high risk if do become infected. So I decided to find out if I should be tested.

I called the number I found most readily available for evaluation for testing, and it lead me to a health care system outside my usual insurance network. Everyone I spoke with was extremely professional and did their best to be helpful, but the system was complicated and somewhat difficult to navigate. I got disconnected, and was then called back hours later for a quick conversation with a health care provider, who quickly decided the cough alone was not cause for a alarm and I didn’t need to be tested at this time. The conversation was rushed enough that I didn’t even get a chance to mention my transplant.

The cough has improved a bit, but when speaking by phone with my primary care doctor on a regularly scheduled visit, he told me that if the cough got worse again I should call him and he’d set me up to be tested. This illustrated to me that while my condition puts me at a disadvantage in this crisis, I also have a major advantage: I’ve had steady insurance coverage for 10 years, and this gave me the ability to receive regular medical care and develop strong relationships with a primary care doctor as well as various specialists.

This saddened me, as I thought about millions who face this crisis without this kind of security because they are uninsured.

Along with added difficulty navigating the system, and the lack of emotional security of working through a doctor they know and trust, uninsured Americans face the prospect of either not getting the COVID-19 treatment they need or being left with tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills. And if they receive uncompensated care, estimates from the Kaiser Family Foundation project this will cost the federal government up to 40% of the $100 billion fund Congress budgeted to help hospitals with COVID-19 treatment.

This crisis has exposed on multiple levels just how badly America needs some form of universal health care. And yet the current presidential administration has opted (for reasons that are clearly politically motivated) not to open a special enrollment period through the Affordable Care Act. And their continued attempts to undo the ACA has made America’s uninsured rate higher than it was a few years ago.

Thankfully Utah has been smarter, with voters choosing to fully expand Medicaid, and state leaders temporarily halting during the crisis the burdensome and ill-advised work reporting requirement attached by the Legislature.

Still, too many Utahns remain uninsured, and our own attorney general refuses to back out of a destructive lawsuit against the ACA which would leave millions more without coverage. At a time when we are seeing how badly Americans need coverage, trying to take away what’s already (without a replacement plan even in place) is cruel and foolish.

There are multiple potential paths toward universal health care. These must be explored and America must move forward. And most importantly, these ideologically motivated attempts to undo the progress that has already been made have to stop. Every American needs the assurance of access to potentially lifesaving healthcare at the worst of times, and that starts with making sure it’s there at the best of times.

Paul Gibbs

Paul Gibbs, West Valley City, is an independent filmmaker, health care activist and father of two who is currently working hard to stay isolated, socially distant and safe from COVID-19.