Free COVID-19 treatment is a critical missing link

April 1, 2020 1:00 pm
Girl in a medical mask on the street during the coronavirus epidemic in Russia by Drug Addiction Clinic Vita

Girl in a medical mask on the street during the coronavirus epidemic in Russia by Drug Addiction Clinic Vita 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The coronavirus pandemic confronts us with a cascading medical emergency that would challenge the greatest leaders.

Fatefully, at a moment when hundreds of thousands of lives hang in the balance, the Trump Administration has made the threat exponentially worse. The administration’s catastrophic failures include a delay of at least a month in ramping up testing, no uniform national social distancing rules and a rigid ideological refusal to wield the power of the federal government to ramp up production and assure timely and cost effective distribution of desperately needed medical supplies and protective equipment. Compounding this chain of errors, the president’s daily press conferences are sowing public confusion and likely impeding social distancing.

That’s why the United States — the most powerful and capable nation on earth — has by far the most COVID-19 cases, and is testing at among the lowest rate in the developed world. It’s so bad that a president who spent a month downplaying the threat is redefining success as holding the death toll to 100,000, nearly double the American fatalities in the Vietnam War.

With lives hanging in the balance, we don’t have the luxury of dwelling on the past. There will be a time for honest accounting, but in the present we have a moral obligation to get ahead of the curve of this pandemic. One lesson learned is that we can’t rely on the federal government to lead. This shifts an immense and unexpected burden on governors and state legislators.

There are hopeful signs that Gov. Tony Evers is stepping up to the challenge. He has already made two critically important moves, and I will suggest a third: guaranteeing to everyone in Wisconsin free treatment for COVID-19, and any medical care that follows.

The governor’s first critical action was mandating social distancing, which he did over the objections of Republican legislative leaders and powerful corporate lobbyists. This would not have been necessary if the federal government had tested in a timely fashion, which would have allowed us to trace the chains of transmission. But now that the coronavirus is spreading invisibly through the population, the best available containment strategy is drastically curtailing social interactions, putting the economy into what some economists term a “medically induced coma.”

This first step gives Wisconsin a fighting chance to slow the virus before the case volume overwhelms our hospitals. But because of the president’s refusal to force production of medical supplies and federalize the supply chain, it will not be enough. Understanding that we can’t wait for federal leadership, Evers made a second essential move: appealing for an immediate special session of the Legislature to expand his emergency powers and give Wisconsin the resources to meet the coming tsunami of infections. So far, the GOP leadership is playing politics as usual and dragging its feet, putting thousands of lives at risk.

Now that the governor is pursuing these two critical steps, my colleagues and I at Citizen Action of Wisconsin are recommending a third step that is essential for containing the pandemic: free universal treatment. This is the best way to identify everyone who already has been or will be infected, and interrupt the deadly chains of disease transmission. We need to start by testing and treating everyone with symptoms, and then once there is sufficient capacity test community-wide, identifying seemingly healthy people spreading the infection.

This is achievable through the power of state government, but only if Wisconsin immediately fixes a deadly flaw in the American health care system: unaffordable cost. A survey of over 1,000 Wisconsinites by Citizen Action and the Healthcare Value Hub found shockingly that nearly half have gone without needed medical care because of fear of the cost in the last year. Given unprecedented unemployment generated by the stay-at-home order, this fear is now even more intense.

Congress has taken the first necessary step by making COVID-19 testing free, but despite the efforts of progressive Democrats, any treatment is still subject to the unaffordable deductibles and copays of private insurance. There are also 321,000 Wisconsinites who are uninsured, and mass layoffs are certainly causing this number to skyrocket. The Kaiser Family Health Foundation estimates COVID-19 treatment will typically cost up to $20,000. In addition, the patients most at risk of life-threatening illness have underlying health conditions which also must also be addressed during coronavirus treatment.

Wisconsin can eliminate this barrier to containing the pandemic by making all medical follow up and treatment that results from seeking a COVID-19 test cost free, including any other urgent medical issues that are discovered.

Citizen Action of Wisconsin has a common sense plan to make this happen which we have shared with the governor.

First, use emergency powers granted by the federal government to deploy BadgerCare to guarantee that everyone has health coverage during the pandemic.

Second, immediately expand BadgerCare by accepting the Medicaid Expansion authorized by the Affordable Care Act. This would cover at least 75,000 more people, and free up $340 million that can be immediately put into the COVID-19 fight.

Third, mandate that health insurance plans pay for all treatment resulting from seeking medical attention for COVID-19. If this creates too much of a burden on some local health plans, Wisconsin can limit the price gouging built into our profit-centered system by requiring hospitals to accept more reasonable Medicare rates for all treatment that results from a COVID-19 test.

This unprecedented public health emergency focuses us on the truth that we are all interconnected, and that leaving people out of our healthcare system risks the lives of everyone in our community.

I urge you to contact your state legislators today and demand an immediate special session to both act on the Governor’s coronavirus relief bill, and to adopt Citizen Action’s plan to guarantee free coronavirus treatment for everyone in Wisconsin.

Robert Kraig is Executive Director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin. You can read our full health care policy recommendations to the Governor here.

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Robert Kraig
Robert Kraig

Dr. Robert Kraig is the executive director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin. Robert took the helm in September 2009 at the height of the Great Recession, when Citizen Action was in virtual bankruptcy, and has led a dynamic team of organizers in rebuilding it into one of the leading progressive forces in Wisconsin. (He holds a PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an M.A. from the University of Georgia and a B.A. from the University of Pittsburgh).