A very bad idea has picked up more steam than it deserves in
recent days: Fed up with surging Delta cases and lagging vaccination rates,
commentators have begun to opine that unvaccinated people ought to pay more for
health insurance, or pay full-freight for any care they require if infected.
“Don’t want the COVID-19 vaccine? Then pay full cost if you land in the
hospital,” declared one headline in MarketWatch. Editor-in-Chief of Kaiser
Health News Elizabeth Rosenthal argued for similar financial penalties in The
New York Times, CNN, and MSNBC. Even prominent medical ethicist Arthur Caplan
joined the chorus, telling an interviewer on WBUR that unvaccinated people
ought to be held liable for the impact of avoidable ICU treatment on overall
spending: “If you won’t vaccinate … you have to pay a financial penalty if you won’t
drive down healthcare costs.”
It may be a seductive argument, but it’s nevertheless an utterly
gruesome notion that deserves unequivocal repudiation before anyone spends
another damn minute remotely considering its implementation. It’s callous and
not likely to work. Moreover, it threatens to undermine what little popular and
political progress we’ve made toward universal healthcare.
One of the most damaging ideological underpinnings of our
market-based healthcare system is that patients are responsible for their own
care, as consumers of commodities. We place the onus on individuals or families
to navigate enrollment, to perform administrative tasks, and to select plans
each year that fit their needs and budget. They are compelled to consider their
health status, and plan carefully for the insurance products best suited for
them: An executive who can afford to buy peace of mind might pick their
employer’s platinum family plan; a gig worker might deduce that a bronze plan
that covers less is all they can afford. If someone is unlucky enough to get
sick, they may find themselves tortured by hours of hold music on calls with
insurers and providers, begrudgingly squaring up reimbursement kerfuffles on
their own behalf.
Before the passage of the Affordable Care Act, or ACA, these
problems were so much worse: Health insurers were able to individualize their
products, charging patients based on what care they were likely to use. To the
cash-strapped, they’d peddle cheapo junk plans that covered practically
nothing. People with documented health conditions could be locked out of
employer-sponsored insurance for up to a year; individual market plans could
charge a would-be enrollee eye-popping premiums or refuse to cover certain
services; and around 18 percent of would-be enrollees got rejected altogether.
And to further hedge their bets against so-called “medical loss,” many
insurance carriers capped an enrollee’s lifetime benefits at numbers that are easily
bottomed out by a health crisis.
But the ACA leveled the playing field in several respects: The landmark
health legislation devised a package of “ten essential health benefits” that
compliant plans had to cover, so they were less able to cherry-pick the
healthiest patients by excluding costlier care. Lifetime caps were axed, and
insurers had to accept all enrollees. And premium prices could only vary
by age or location. In other words, insurers were finally deprived of their
go-to tactics to ward off less profitable patients.
These provisions transformed the lives of people with
preexisting conditions: insurance rates for Type 1 diabetics suddenly jumped 20 percent within two years of
implementation; one study found that the vast majority of
people who became insured thanks to the ACA had health issues that would have
previously affected their premium pricing. The new rules helped women too: Before it became
illegal in 2014, insurers charged women 30 percent higher premiums than men on
average, and only 12 percent of individual plans covered maternity care.
Taken together, these hard-won protections for people with
preexisting conditions are among the ACA’s most laudable and popular
achievements. Still, too many punitive aspects of the pre-Obamacare landscape
remain, making life more difficult for people who require more care. Their
premiums may be equal, but you’d be hard up to find a chronically ill person
who doesn’t spend thousands more each year than a healthy enrollee in
deductibles, copays and coinsurance. People with extensive health needs also
require more specialized services, relegating them to more expensive plans with
more in-network providers. And the more care that someone gets, the more time
they lose on the phone arguing with claims adjustors, begging for their bills
to be paid.
In short, the American healthcare system still doesn’t
distribute pain remotely evenly. When Medicare for All advocates say that all
care should be free at the point of use, we’re not just insisting on purity—we’re saying that individual healthcare use shouldn’t determine how much anyone
pays into the system. After all, someone who is perfectly healthy can avoid
paying any deductibles, copays or coinsurance. Cost-sharing is a tax on
You’ve surely heard the arguments against this: “But why should
I pay for other people’s care?! If people want to <insert risky behavior
here, they should pay for it themselves!” There’s also this popular line of
thinking: “But without cost-sharing, people will have no incentive to live
healthy lifestyles!” These highly consumerist arguments reflect health
insurance’s early history as an outgrowth of property insurance, where pricing
by individual risk makes sense: as in, “If people want to drive recklessly and
total their car four times a year, they ought to pay more than careful drivers
with flawless records.”
But this logic is vile when it’s enshrined as the basis for a
healthcare system, framing patients with complex health needs as unfortunate
money pits not only for insurers, but the healthy patients who resent
“subsidizing” their sicker peers. The obvious problem here is that health, overwhelmingly,
is socially produced: Life expectancy and relative morbidity differ starkly
between rich and poor, black and white, college-educated and those with no
advanced degree—even by census tract and zip code.
The uncomfortable truth undercutting the bellyaching from the “Why
should we all pay for someone else’s reckless choices?!” brigade is that even
self-evidently harmful behaviors are mediated by class and social circumstance.
But the architects of the ACA didn’t fully see it that way, and their folly has
a lesson to teach: Insurers were allowed to charge smokers up to 50 percent higher
premiums. But it turned out to be a godawful idea. The penalty didn’t
incentivize people to quit smoking, but it did lead more people to become uninsured.
Smokers are already more likely to be poor and sick: effectively booting them
out of the healthcare system isn’t just unspeakably cruel, it severs their
relationship with care providers who could support their efforts to quit
smoking or mitigate the habit’s harms.
And though you might not glean it from hissing media coverage
framing tens of millions of unvaccinated adults as frothing, MAGA hat-donning,
anti-vaxxers, people who haven’t yet gotten the shot are disproportionately
likely to be poor and uninsured. That doesn’t cause someone to forego a jab any
more than poverty causes someone to smoke, but structural forces have
undeniably produced dramatically different “choices” by income level. Primary
care providers are perhaps better situated than anyone to combat vaccine
hesitancy—blocking unvaccinated people from accessing them is lunacy.
Financial penalties induce people to avoid necessary care, something people
deserve regardless of vaccine status.
If health and choices are socially produced, they must also be
socially addressed: We need Medicare for All with zero cost-sharing, and we must
reject the idea of “individual responsibility” for health altogether. Charging
unvaccinated people more reopens the door for insurers to sanction other health
behaviors and pre-existing conditions, undermining a bedrock ACA achievement.
We must vaccinate as many people as possible to save lives. To do so, we should
make it easier than ever before—and yes, we should couple an increased ease of
access with mandates wherever it’s feasible. But threatening to revoke access
to healthcare as punishment for not getting a shot is not merely
counter-productive: It’s obscene. Healthcare is a right and it’s high time we
treated it like one.
This content was originally published here.