The next President of the United States will have to manage the immediate threat of the virus while ensuring excess morbidity and mortality from other conditions is not worse than the virus. Americans who are uninsured, suffering from cancer, mental illness, addiction and the millions putting off screening or prevention can no longer wait for the virus to pass. The new administration will have to implement a holistic healthcare effort that goes beyond COVID-19 focused on communication, coverage and care.
The second and third waves of COVID-19 and subsequent lock downs are causing global markets to shudder but more acute is the panic setting in among those who suffer from chronic medical conditions. The warped promise of a vaccine by election has passed and the reality of prolonged shelter has set in. We have hit an inflection point of having to live in a new world focused on eradicating the virus but that must equally address illness deemphasized within the pandemic.
Cancer care and mental health is taking a dangerous back seat to COVID-19. There have been delays in treatment and decreases in screening. During the peak of the pandemic screening for breast, colon, prostate, and lung cancer were all lower by 85%, 75%, 74%, and 56%, according to data released this week . And prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, 47mm Americans (about one in five adults) reported having a mental illness. And 53% of adults in the United States reported that their mental health has been negatively impacted due to stress over the virus with 36% reporting difficulty sleeping. More than 40 states have reported increases in opioid related deaths since the pandemic hit.
The path to sustained economic recovery is through a robust healthcare system not just a pandemic response. A three point strategy around communication, coverage and care must include funding anchored in practicality. The new administration needs to open the office of public trust working with the medical community on the front line and local leaders to forge a healthcare path for all Americans. Empowering HHS (Health and Human Services) to work with the states addressing illnesses left behind will require boldness to break through the historical regulatory bureaucracy that plagues our system. Early wins arounds Medicare telehealth coverage, increasing hospital capacity, waving COVID-19 related medical costs were a start but it’s time for the more difficult adult non-partisan discussion on coverage.
Pre-pandemic, the US had 26 million uninsured Americans and recent estimates suggest another 5-10 mm became newly uninsured as a result of job losses from the pandemic. The next President can continue to evolve and adapt what we have or work to replace it in earnest. There will be healthcare life after COVID-19 and we should use this time of focus and funding to make the system stronger not weaker.
The American people are industrious, generous and aspire to do the right thing when led honestly, transparently and fairly. This close election shows that they want empathetic leaders who take into account the hardships and hurt affecting their families and communities while leading them to pave a path of funding and care for the next town over. It’s time for healthcare leadership that speaks to all illness, builds upon what we got right and learns from what we have gotten wrong.