The Pandemic Gave America a Painfully Brief Glimpse of a Better Health Care System

Two years ago, as Joe Biden’s campaign pulled far ahead in
the presidential primary and the United States settled into a lockdown to slow
the spread of the novel coronavirus, I felt fairly certain about one thing: The
global pandemic we were about to live through would surely make a powerful case
for Medicare for All. Early reports had begun rolling in about mass layoffs,
which seemed poised to drive up the rate of uninsurance from the already high
baseline of around 30 million people. Pricey hospital care would be financially
ruinous for untold numbers of patients, and others might avoid care for fear of
costs. Meanwhile people shut out of the health care system might struggle to get
tests, and so on.

Here’s what I got wrong: The coronavirus did not inspire a
massive wave of pro–Medicare for All sentiment, largely because the federal government took
several unprecedented steps to mitigate the pandemic, which briefly made our
health care system more humane—provisions that notably have either mostly
ended or are on the verge of ending soon. But Covid-19 nonetheless found
plenty of ways to illustrate the dysfunctions of the U.S. health care system,
and the downside of the extreme measures that were briefly undertaken to save
lives is that depressingly little seems poised to change, despite all of these
lessons learned.

In the pandemic’s early days, several private insurers
voluntarily waived cost-sharing for Covid-19 treatment where it wasn’t already
mandated at the state level, and the federal government stepped in to avert a
massive increase in uninsurance. It took the shocking step of covering 100
percent of COBRA subsidies to keep people on their plans after being laid off and barred states from kicking people out of Medicaid for the duration of the
official public health crisis. The impact of these measures was significant: Despite
gloomy projections, including my own, while over 12 million people were
to have lost their insurance
, nearly all made their way onto alternate