American health care has some of the world’s best doctors, state-of-the-art equipment and innovative researchers. But when the COVID-19 pandemic landed on our shores, in many ways, we were caught flat-footed.
Some hospitals reached their breaking points, patients living in rural communities were often left with little access to care and providers found themselves consistently short-staffed.
For many Latinos, these problems were especially severe. In California, Latinos accounted for 56 percent of all COVID-19 cases and 46 percent of virus-related deaths.
We’re in a much better position now than we were in 2020 in our fight against COVID-19. So lawmakers should consider ways to improve the state of our health care, now and in the future. How can we get there?
The pandemic revealed the flaws and failures of our health care system and created a stronger demand for reforms that would expand access, reduce costs, end surprise medical bills and strengthen safety nets.
American health care is saddled with onerous regulations, mandates and restrictions that make affordable, quality care difficult to access. When the pandemic hit, these harmful and poorly thought-out regulations acted like ticking time bombs that had been laid by lawmakers and regulators. As the virus spread, these bombs began to detonate.
Fixing their mistakes
To their credit, many officials recognized this and took action. For example, the federal government and the states began removing restrictions on telehealth — a service that allows patients to access their providers remotely through a smartphone, tablet or computer — helping rural Americans and those with limited mobility get the care they needed, while keeping traffic down in doctor’s offices.
This service was especially critical for Hispanics, who relied heavily on telehealth during the pandemic and were broadly satisfied with their care.
States also began suspending certificate-of-need laws, which forbid providers from purchasing new equipment, offering new services and opening new locations without government permission. For years, these laws contributed to health care shortages across the country.
It took a pandemic for lawmakers to realize these restrictions had to go. This reform allowed more hospitals to expand their capacities for the influx of COVID-19 patients.
Many states are now opting to repeal or reform such laws, including Montana and Tennessee.
Lawmakers also suspended or relaxed their scope-of-practice laws. These restrictions prevent advanced practice registered nurses from seeing patients without physician supervision, even though they are more than qualified to provide diagnostic care and treatment.
What’s more, these laws raise health care costs and contribute to care shortages, even though they do not increase patient safety.
A personal option
What do these reforms have in common? They put the doctor-patient relationship, rather than insurance companies and bureaucrats, at the center of health care.
The LIBRE Initiative supports these reforms, and others, as part of what we call a health care personal option, sensible reforms that would bring greater choice, lower costs and more price transparency.
We’ve seen the success of these policies throughout the past year.
Unfortunately, some lawmakers have not learned these lessons from the pandemic. They insist that additional government control — the major cause of our health care dysfunction — is the proper remedy.
They claim that a “public option,” in which government would play the role of insurance company, is capable of meeting the health care needs of patients and reducing costs.
But a public option would do neither. It would simply shift costs to health care providers by forcing them to take lower reimbursement rates. In turn, providers would simply push those costs on to Americans with private insurance plans.
Some also advocate passage of HR 3, a scheme to cap prescription drug prices. Many other countries have tried this, with little success. Fixing drug prices always results in drug shortages and fewer drugs reaching the market.
While the United States has access to nearly 90 percent of all new prescription drugs, France, Canada and Japan have access to around 50 percent, an all-too-predictable consequence of their price fixing.
We know that government-controlled medicine doesn’t work. Latinos, especially those from Venezuela and Cuba, have seen the results of such programs.
In Venezuela, patients need to bring their own food and medical supplies to hospitals to receive treatment. Cuban doctors and pharmacies routinely lack critical medical supplies.
And, of course, we saw the appalling outcomes of government interference in our health care system in the early days of the pandemic, too.
What would it look like?
Congress and the states took the lead in getting government out of the way of our health care system when the pandemic struck. There’s still more they can do, starting with making the temporary pandemic-inspired changes permanent.
Congress should also expand health savings accounts by passing Sens. Marco Rubio and Tim Scott’s Health Savings Act. That would give more Americans access to HSAs, allowing them to put money away for care and save money on each expense. For Americans in need of further assistance, lawmakers could offer directly funded HSAs.
Lawmakers should also remove regulations on short-term renewable insurance plans — which typically cost much less than traditional plans — and on health reimbursement arrangements, which allow more Americans to purchase portable insurance.
These reforms would help Latinos, and all Americans, access quality health care, when and where they need it, at a price they can afford.
The pandemic has taught us an important lesson about the pressing need to offer more Americans a personal option in their health care. Now, as life begins to return to normal, we can carry that lesson forward to help more patients and to better prepare for the next crisis.
Daniel Garza is president of The LIBRE Initiative, an organization dedicated to advancing the principles of economic freedom to empower the U.S. Hispanic community to thrive and contribute to a more prosperous America.