Pandemic response requires ensuring care for the vulnerable

The COVID-19 pandemic has sent the economy hurtling into a recession. More than 36 million people have filed for unemployment benefits in the last eight weeks, as the nation’s unemployment rate rocketed up to 14.7 percent in April, the highest since the Great Depression. A startling change since February, when the unemployment rate was at 3.5 percent.

Among the collateral damage from the rising unemployment rates is a growing number of Americans who have lost their health insurance.

Most people in the United States who have health insurance, get it through their employer. When your job goes away, so does your health insurance. If there is ever a time people need the access to quality health care that health insurance provides, it is during a global pandemic. 

We have already seen that the COVID-19 virus will hit hardest in the poorest parts of the country, “where workers are more likely to get sick in the first place, have less access to doctors, have inferior insurance or none at all, and work in the types of service-sector jobs – agriculture, transportation, hotel, sanitation, shipping and delivery – that have been exempted from most shelter-in-place orders,” according to the website fastcompany.com.

With more people tumbling into poverty because they have lost their jobs, they will be more likely to become a victim of the pandemic.

Some people who lose their health insurance with their jobs will find relief by switching to their spouse’s insurance or finding coverage through the health exchanges set up through the Affordable Care Act – better known as Obamacare. And some will qualify for Medicaid, the federal and state financed program that provides health insurance for low-income families.

But that option has been complicated in Tennessee by the state’s refusal to expand Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act to cover people who have incomes of up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. That refusal has left on the table $1.4 billion in new federal funds that could be used to improve the health of Tennesseans.

And during a pandemic, making sure more people have access to quality health care is critical because it will save lives.

Instead of accepting the offer to expand Medicaid, the state has filed an application with the federal government to convert its Medicaid program, known as TennCare, into a modified block grant program. The state believes it can manage the program more efficiently without the federal rules that govern the program, and thus save money.

Others fear that converting TennCare to a modified block grant program will only give the state an incentive to reduce the benefits people need to stay healthy and alive.

Tennessee’s three bishops, through the Tennessee Catholic Public Policy Commission, have opposed the block grant proposal. Their position is in accord with the Catholic Church’s long-standing advocacy for a health care system that combines universal access to quality health care with cost control, while ensuring care for the poor and preserving human life and dignity.

“Our approach to healthcare is shaped by a simple, fundamental principle: every person has the right to adequate healthcare,” the bishops have written. “This right flows from the sanctity of human life and the dignity that belongs to all human persons who are made in the image and likeness of God. Healthcare is more than a commodity; it is a basic human right, and an essential safeguard of human life and dignity. Our consistent teaching that each human life must be protected and that human dignity be promoted leads us to insist that all people have the right to health care.”

The bishops add: “The virtue of solidarity and our teaching on the preferential option for the poor and the vulnerable require us to measure our health system in terms of how it affects the weak and disadvantaged. In seeking the fundamental changes that are necessary, we focus especially on the impact of health policies on the poor and vulnerable.”

The threat of the COVID-19 virus on the poor and vulnerable is undeniable. Our health care system should respond to those threats.

State and local officials in Tennessee and across the country, as well as businesses, employers, churches and individuals have taken steps to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus and to protect lives, their own and others. But every day, tens of thousands of new cases are reported. That means every day the lives of tens of thousands more Americans are threatened.

Our response to the pandemic must include making access to quality health care available to as many people as possible, especially as millions of Americans are losing that access as they lose their jobs. 

We must use the tools we have to expand coverage to as many people as possible, and if necessary, we should find new tools to do so if the ones we have available to us now are inadequate.