While Some Wait For COVID-19 Tests, The Wealthy Cut The Line

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A healthcare worker watches over the line of people waiting to be tested for COVID-19 at the state's first drive-up testing center in Denver. (Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)
A healthcare worker watches over the line of people waiting to be tested for COVID-19 at the state's first drive-up testing center in Denver. (Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)

Editor’s Note: Stanford Health Center says it does not give red blankets to donors as stated in this segment.

While average Americans fret on social media about empty toilet paper aisles, author Nelson Schwartz says the wealthy are installing hospital-grade filtration systems and building safe rooms.

The coronavirus has exposed the vast inequalities in our health care system: Rich Americans from movie stars to Instagram influencers are getting access to COVID-19 tests before many sick people showing relevant symptoms.

In "The Velvet Rope Economy: How Inequality Became Big Business," Schwartz writes about how private services like concierge doctors disincentivize investments in health care and other public services.

Wealthy people can pay concierge doctors an annual fee for around the clock care. Now, he says, in the era of coronavirus, one concierge doctor who stocked up on virus swabs is organizing drive-through testing in Silicon Valley for his clients only.

Another medical concierge firm is helping people with underlying conditions like respiratory distress get oxygen concentrators, he says. The firm is also writing 90-day prescriptions and arranging nebulizers for taking drugs in case the supply chain is disrupted.

“Concierge docs are doing what they can to help their patients, even if that means jumping the line,” he says. “In the age of the coronavirus pandemic, not all patients are created equal.”

This is how health care works in this country right now, but Schwartz says it’s frightening because “we're all in it together.” Testing only a small number of people puts everyone at risk, he says.

People showing COVID-19 symptoms need to receive tests over the “worried well,” he says.

“We want the maximum number of people tested right now, not just those with means,” he says.

But that’s not how our health care system works. Privileges exist for the wealthy throughout the health care system, he says, while Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements have been cut. Plus, local hospitals are closing in impoverished areas. He writes in his book about a hospital that shuttered its doors in a poor suburb of San Francisco while the city continued to build multi-billion dollar facilities.

The people who are skipping the line don’t realize other people have a different experience, he writes. At John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, elites can fly in on a BLADE helicopter to avoid two hours of traffic. At LAX, wealthy passengers can use the private suite to evade lines and congestion.

“I think it leads to less of a sense of urgency,” he says. “You're not going to be interested in more funding for infrastructure, for roads or repairs or rebuilding. I mean, you're just going to sort of go in the fast lane and not worry.”

The COVID-19 pandemic serves as a test for society, he says.

“I hope people come together and there's more of a spirit of unity,” he says. “But I can't help but think money's going to continue to make a big, big difference.”

Cassady Rosenblum produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Peter O'DowdAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on March 19, 2020.

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