National political discourse is currently centered on how and when to safely open America. Just as relevant is that we begin to think about next September when there will be a new flu season with a likely resurgence of COVID-19, and perhaps some other unanticipated health crisis.
The United States obviously was not prepared to deal with a pandemic, but the past cannot be undone. What we can do is to take actions that will better prepare us to handle the health challenges that will arise this coming September. My suggestions touch on only a few basic options.
Effective national planning is essential for success. A federal agency needs to be created to formulate effective health policies regarding pandemics, and it must be given the power to carry out such policies. The agency’s commissioner does not have to be a medical expert or a politician currently in office. What is needed is a person with administrative experience.
The consistent lack of sufficient ventilators, masks, medical swab sticks, robes, and other essential supplies is scandalous. A health agency could convene medical experts to determine how many and what medical supplies we need to cope with emergencies. This determination would be followed by contacting manufacturers able to meet those needs. Rather than states driving up prices by scrambling to outbid one another for limited supplies, the profit margins of mandated ample production would be set at pre-pandemic levels. Warehousing with regularized maintenance could be increased to handle projected future needs in a worst-case scenario.
Presently, national security is imperiled by our dependency on foreign manufacturers for medical supplies. Domestic production would erase that threat. With emphasis placed on producing high-quality products, the United States ultimately would become an exporter of medical supplies. An accompanying side benefit would be the creation of at least 100,000 new jobs permanently located in the United States.
Testing is essential for tracking COVID-19 and providing data for appropriate medical treatment, responsible research, and public policy. The extremely slow response in developing testing kits has hampered our ability to deal with the present pandemic. Such need not be in the case in September.
Three different testing kits are needed by hospitals. Currently there are dozens of alternatives for all three. Further complicating testing is that if a kit is made by say Abbot Labs, only hospitals using the Abbot system can use that test. A national program could mandate that kits be universally accessible, and perhaps consolidated into one or two kits. If done well, testing kits would become another export item.
One consequence of closing schools, restaurants, and public gatherings is the losses generated for food and beverage enterprises. America’s dairy farmers, for example, have had to dump millions of gallons of milk. A national agency anticipating such consequences, could create contingency plans so products like the milk now being dumped could be sent to food pantries and other charities that aid lower-income areas and furloughed workers. Farmers would have their losses erased by compensation that at least covers their costs.
Medical professionals have warned about the shortage of hospitals and medical personnel at all levels for decades. A pandemic overwhelms the capacity of medical centers. As doctor-patient ratios become nearly untenable, numerous patients will get hurried or delayed treatment. A responsible pandemic agency could draw up a multi-year agenda designed to end these chronic shortages.
Tens of millions of Americans have no health insurance or have policies with high co-pays. A pandemic agency could spell out just how this affects hospital’s efficiency and costs by clogging emergency rooms with maladies that could have been treated easily and far more cheaply at earlier stages. Moreover, cancelled elective surgery does not just affect face lifts but hip replacements and other problems that are not life-threatening but life-distorting and often painful.
Even modest reform would be helpful. One such proposal is to lower the Medicare eligibility age to 55 and to automatically enroll any uninsured Americans into Medicaid. The longer-term goal would be to keep lowering the Medicare age until we have universal health care.
Over a hundred million Americans pay more for prescribed medications than any other nation. As a result, many Americans put off routine medical care or stop taking prescribed drugs for financial reasons. An agency could compel the lowering of drug costs to international rates which would result in 50% lower costs for the government and individuals, freeing more funds for basic research.
Our health quandaries will not be resolved by September, but a national plan is needed to consider the many options available to handle, as best we can, problems associated with pandemics. Waiting passively and hoping for the best would be foolish.