Talking Points

COVID's still here. So, why isn't treatment free anymore?

For all the ways President Donald Trump botched in his response to the coronavirus pandemic — and boy howdy, was it a long list — let's give a wee bit of credit where credit is due. "The president has made it very clear," then-Vice President Mike Pence said in April 2020, "we don't want Americans to worry about the cost of getting a test or the cost of getting treatment" for COVID-19.

This week, that federal program is winding down due to Senate Republicans balking at the Biden administration's request for ​​an additional $22.5 billion to continue the battle against COVID. That means if you're one of the 28 million Americans who are uninsured — and who for two years now could have taken at least some comfort in the fact that the White House was reimbursing providers for coronavirus-related care — you're now on the hook for associated testing and medical bills. If you also happen to be one of the 25,459 Americans to test positive for COVID-19 yesterday, that's pretty scary — not to mention, infuriatingly arbitrary.

But while "Medicare for all" tends to be treated as a tentacle of America's socialism boogeyman, Trump's (CARES) Act was essentially "Medicare for COVID," Princeton University economist Janet Currie told Quartz in April 2021. That is to say, COVID-19 became a kind of mini-experiment in what it would be like to not have the ax of medical debt hanging over your head if you needed specific-to-COVID care.

By no stretch of the imagination was it a perfectly implemented program. Also problematic: There was no requirement to tell patients upfront that their COVID treatment would be covered, leading many uninsured would-be patients not to seek care (and in extreme cases, even die as a result). But the program's shortcomings only serve to emphasize how vital it really was: Indeed, "in the U.S., we are so accustomed to paying out of pocket for essential health care that when it is provided for free, it is a foreign concept," The Nation wrote this winter, noting that at the time, a "significant barrier to vaccination [was] that some people think they will be charged for it."

Still, there will be plenty of people who shrug off the end of the program, especially since vaccinated people are so unlikely to go to the hospital (and thus accrue crippling medical bills) for COVID. True enough, the vast majority of people who will go bankrupt due to catching COVID, or die failing to seek prohibitively expensive treatment, will likely be anti-vaxxers. But that's far from a reason not to care, or fight for the program's continuation: "We don't use the medical-care system as a way of meting out justice," Matt Wynia, a doctor and ethicist at the University of Colorado, previously explained to The Atlantic. "We don't use it to punish people for their social choices." Neither should financial punishment be meted out to those who catch a contagious disease, no matter what their beliefs.

But even more than that, the takeaway from our brief period of Medicare-for-COVID ought to be how easy it was to do once politicians decided they actually wanted it. Don't let anyone tell you universal healthcare isn't possible; we've already had a taste.