Barack Obama became president just as the nation was reeling from its worst economic downturn since the 1930s.
Out of necessity, he saw his first job as working with Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress to pass a massive stimulus bill.
But then, as he recounts in his forthcoming memoir, he rejected the advice of his closest confidantes and pivoted to healthcare. Realizing his political capital wouldn’t last, President Obama set in motion a successful legislative campaign to address two of healthcare’s most pressing and long-standing problems: the large and growing uninsured population and the sector’s out-of-control costs.
The next president will face a similar dilemma. Only, this time he won’t have a choice. Healthcare must be taken care of and it must come first.
The reason is obvious. The only way to end the current economic downturn is by successfully controlling the COVID-19 pandemic, which is spiking to new heights because of the nation’s pathetic response to date.
It’s quite possible Congress in the lame-duck session will finally pass a fourth COVID-related stimulus bill. When negotiations broke off between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin just before the election, the two sides were still $500 billion apart.
Senate Republican leaders said they couldn’t round up the 13 votes needed to overcome a filibuster and give tax-starved state and local governments much needed aid. Without that assistance, local communities, which must balance their budgets, will have to lay off tens of thousands of health and safety first-responders.
But let’s assume for the moment that, once election-season passions cool, Congress will at least get that much done. That will only set the stage for dealing with the pandemic.
Here’s a brief rundown of what every government, healthcare and business institution should push for over the coming months:
- Do everything in your power to lobby the government to create and execute a nationally coordinated strategy for controlling the virus. Ideally, it should have bipartisan backing.
- Ensure healthcare providers and public health agencies have everything they need to provide care for those stricken with the disease; support and protect workers providing that care; and establish comprehensive testing and tracing programs in every city, town and state.
- As needed, impose lockdowns or, hopefully, lesser economic restrictions, while insisting on masking and social distancing during community activities.
Until we commit to a national response that sharply reduces the infection rate, there will be no economic recovery.
Banking entirely on the hope that scientists and the drug industry will come up with an effective vaccine is lunacy.
Under the best of circumstances, a nationwide vaccine campaign won’t roll out for at least six months. Even then, the vaccine may be only partially effective. The final data will tell. That means measures like masking and social distancing will probably have to remain in place for at least another year.
Given those realities, 2021 is shaping up as another recession year. Even the stock market recognizes that fact.
In the meantime, what will happen to the tens of millions of people who lose their health insurance because they’ve lost their jobs? What will happen to the thousands of people slammed with huge hospital and physician bills because they contracted COVID-19 without health insurance? What will happen to the hospitals and physician practices that took care of those patients but didn’t receive reimbursement?
Beyond those immediate needs, this is still a nation that, even in the best of times, hasn’t solved its uninsured problem. And now a newly reconfigured Supreme Court is poised to throw out our last attempt at fixing the problem.
So here’s my one and only prediction about the election: One way or another, healthcare will be the first order of business when the new Congress convenes next January.