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Health care should be a public service not a business plan, George Pyle writes

Decisions made by Utah officials seem mostly designed to boost the stock price of a previously unknown outfit called Co-Diagnostics

(Pat Bagley | The Salt Lake Tribune) This cartoon, titled "Take the TestUtah Test," appears in The Salt Lake Tribune on Tuesday, June 16, 2020.

This is an emergency. A public health crisis of the first order. People of all walks of life are threatened by a new and highly contagious virus that threatens to overwhelm our health care system even as it kills thousands of us every day.

So, how can we make bank on that?

That, in a nutshell, is what is wrong with the way the United States in general, and Utah in particular, treats health care. Not as a public service, as it is seen in civilized nations, but as a business opportunity.

From just about the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, The Salt Lake Tribune’s journalists have led the way in explaining how so much of official Utah’s response was clearly concerned less about protecting the public health than about finding ways for politically connected entrepreneurs to profit from it.

The latest blow-by-blow is on our website now. It explains how decisions — made not by public health officials or health care providers but by the state’s budget office and boosters of its high-tech sector — seemed mostly designed to boost the stock price of a previously unknown outfit called Co-Diagnostics.

Co-Diagnostics was one of the firms that provided coronavirus tests, in an effort called TestUtah that was operated mostly by a Silicon Slopes company called Nomi Health. The whole enterprise has mostly faded away, leaving little more than a huge payday for Co-Diagnostic’s CEO, a Securities and Exchange Commission inquiry that may or may not be ongoing and some class-action lawsuits claiming the company’s claims of its pandemic-related business prospects were, to say the least, overly optimistic.

The attitude of everyone associated with the state — except, notably, the Health Department — seemed to be that only the best brains of the high-tech startup sector could possibly save us.

That it would be foolish — or, at least, no fun — to rely on those stodgy state and local health departments that have been set up for decades to deal with infections diseases. Or to turn to those two major nonprofit hospital systems — Intermountain Healthcare and University Health — that Utah’s leaders are usually so quick to brag about.

It wasn’t that then-Gov. Gary Herbert, now-Gov. Spencer Cox, then-head of the Office of Management and Budget Kristen (no relation to Spencer) Cox or anyone else wanted anyone to get a faulty test. It was just that they and others seemed to view it all as a Ralph Kramden/Cosmo Kramer get-rich-quick scheme that might, just by the way, slow the spread of a deadly virus.

There is significant difference between health care providers, especially those who make medicines and equipment, making a profit and for-profit healthcare. The former is no worse than companies that make money selling jet fighters to the Air Force, squad cars to police departments or glue and glitter to elementary schools. The latter is a completely upside-down way to handle it.

The fact that profit comes first for so much of the health care establishment is the reason we can’t have nice things, like Medicare for All, or even, as is being proposed as part of the Democrats’ infrastructure initiative, Medicare eligibility that, instead of starting at 65, starts at 60. And includes dental and vision coverage.

The bean counters say that might cost more than $500 billion over 10 years. But that could be paid for by allowing Medicare to do what big private plans and the Veterans Administration already do — negotiate with Big Pharma to drive down the cost of prescription drugs.

Not counting the billions we’d save in lost wages, disability claims and the avoidance of a great deal of human suffering.

It helped that the U.S. Supreme Court the other day rejected, in a lopsided 7-2 vote, the latest and, probably, final attempt by Republican office-holders (including, to his eternal shame, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes) to destroy the Affordable Care Act. That should be the we-hope-you-get-sick-and-die alliance’s last chance to kill Obamacare in the courts.

Health care should be seen for what it should always have been. Not a right — like free speech and due process of law, but a public good — like fire departments and public schools, something no civilized nation would even think of going without.

The explosion of freedom that would follow would be phenomenal. People who are now tied to their jobs could freelance, start their own businesses or retire early. Businesses weighed down by health care costs could hire more workers or just better pay the ones they have. All that would be a big help to economic sectors now struggling financially — including, oh, say, newspapers.

Unhappy marriages could end without anyone losing their health care access. States and municipalities would be spared the costs of health care for the homeless and the incarcerated.

But only when government sees that it is its responsibility to provide health care access, not its job to boost corporate profitability.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) George Pyle.

George Pyle, opinion editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, has been paying payroll taxes to support Medicare for 43 years now and is about ready to get it all back.

gpyle@sltrib.com

Twitter, @debatestate


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