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Ensuring Care For Vulnerable Patients Is The Only Way We Can Contain The Coronavirus Outbreak

A commuter wears a face mask in the New York City transit system, Monday, March 9, 2020, in New York. (John Minchillo/AP)
A commuter wears a face mask in the New York City transit system, Monday, March 9, 2020, in New York. (John Minchillo/AP)

Last Tuesday, I flew home from Washington. The House was in the middle of debate over emergency funding for coronavirus. Republicans were balking at provisions to ensure testing and treatment were affordable for all. They were also threatening to block undocumented Americans from accessing care.

I needed to know what was happening at home. So by Wednesday morning, I was sitting at East Boston Neighborhood Health Center with medical experts, community health center staff and public health officials who are preparing for coronavirus on the front lines. Their message was simple: Ensuring vulnerable patients have access to testing and treatment isn’t just the right thing to do for the health of those patients — it’s the right thing to do for the health of us all. It’s the only way we will contain an outbreak.

They pointed to the families they serve in East Boston who are disproportionately un- or under-insured. These families are more likely to live in multigenerational homes where grandparents are susceptible to grandchildren carrying the virus (without showing symptoms). This community relies heavily on public transportation, increasing the chances of contracting the virus in larger crowds. They are often hourly workers, gig economy employees and parents working multiple jobs to make ends meet, who are less likely to have paid sick leave or reliable child care.

All of these factors create an environment where a patient showing symptoms could wait days, or even weeks, to seek necessary tests and treatment, while potentially exposing loved ones, colleagues, neighbors and strangers to coronavirus.

That’s why I called on Congressional leaders to include emergency funding for the community health centers that will provide the first touch for countless patients. That’s why Democrats demanded that tests, treatment and eventual vaccines are available to all who call this nation home — at a cost that will not price a single person out of lifesaving care.

Rep. Kennedy (top right) meets with Manny Lopes, President & CEO, East Boston Neighborhood Health Center (EBNHC), State Senator Joseph Boncore and Dr. Monica Manandhar, an infectious disease physician of adult medicine at EBNHC. (Courtesy)
Rep. Kennedy (top right) meets with Manny Lopes, President & CEO, East Boston Neighborhood Health Center (EBNHC), State Senator Joseph Boncore and Dr. Monica Manandhar, an infectious disease physician of adult medicine at EBNHC. (Courtesy)

A few hours after my meeting in East Boston, the House passed an emergency spending bill. It was a good start. But at every level of government, we have our work cut out of us in the weeks ahead.

We must work with insurers to waive any surprise medical bills for quarantines, medical transport and tests.

We must guarantee Medicare and Medicaid cover costs.

We must ensure outreach to underserved communities is proactive, not reactive, once the first case has been diagnosed.

We must offer assistance to the hourly employees and gig economy workers who will bear the most severe economic costs of major disruptions.

We must intentionally combat discrimination towards the Asian-American community.

We must guarantee that not a single undocumented immigrant is denied care.

This virus has become a diagnostic dye across our country, crystallizing all the ways our current system fails

And we must use this moment to tackle health care injustice with new energy and new urgency, because we cannot afford to wait. This virus has become a diagnostic dye across our country, crystallizing all the ways our current system fails — the people it doesn’t cover, the access it doesn’t grant, the incentives that reward profit instead of better outcomes.

It’s good that Congress is telling insurers to cover telemedicine during this outbreak. They should also cover telemedicine for mental health and addiction crises. It’s great the pharmaceutical industry is racing towards affordable cures and vaccines for coronavirus. They should also race towards a day when diabetes patients don’t have to ration insulin. It’s important that the federal government is trying to protect our stock market with economic stimulus. They should also protect our workers with guaranteed sick days and paid family leave.

If we do not use this moment to consider the million ways our current system fails the patients that need it most, then our response will be a band-aid for a bullet wound.

Coronavirus has exposed more than our ill-preparedness for public health crises; it has reinforced the deep and dangerous inequities that define American health care today. As we prepare to confront a potential pandemic, it is that inequity that could hamper our response most of all.

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Joe Kennedy III Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Congressman Joe Kennedy III represents the 4th Congressional District of Massachusetts, which stretches from the suburbs of Boston to the cities of Massachusetts’ South Coast

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