The COVID-19 pandemic has upended our daily lives and devastated families and communities across the commonwealth. Businesses are struggling, schools have closed, there are record numbers of unemployment claims and our front-line workers are at risk.
It has also revealed significant holes in our public health systems and underscored the need for a new generation of leaders who will prioritize the safety and well-being of Kentuckians above party politics and corporate profits.
Sen. Mitch McConnell is taking a victory lap for the public health emergency funding in the coronavirus relief package; however, by most measures, it’s too little, too late. Public health programs that research, prevent, and track infectious diseases nationally and globally have been underfunded at every level for far too long. Let’s not forget he has voted time and time again — over decades — to cut funding to these very programs. And he’s failed to properly replenish the Strategic National Stockpile with basic supplies like masks for a decade.
Let’s also not forget that McConnell led the charge — unsuccessfully — to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) without replacement legislation, which would have devastated Kentuckians’ access to health care. Imagine trying to tackle a global pandemic with millions more Americans without health care coverage.
While attempting to dismantle our health care system, McConnell tried to eliminate the CDC’s Prevention and Public Health Fund, which mitigates and responds to public health challenges, such as infectious-disease outbreaks. About two-thirds of that fund went to state and community partners and programs — including those in Kentucky.
There will be a time for further reflection on how we — one of the richest nations on earth with the world’s top public health experts — have arguably the worst trajectory of coronavirus infections and now lead the world in COVID-19 cases while drastically lagging behind other countries in testing.
But right now, we still have much more to do to mitigate the damage of this pandemic.
The federal government needs to immediately reopen the ACA health care exchange enrollment option.
During a pandemic, people should not have the added worry and financial stress that comes from being uninsured — or worse, avoid getting care altogether because they fear they won’t be able to foot the bill. It is unfathomable that McConnell and his allies are limiting access to health insurance at this critical time just because it’s his political goal to undermine the ACA.
And now, new analysis shows that private insurance premiums may rise by as much as 40% because of the cost of treating and testing coronavirus patients. Congress must act to prevent those increases and should lower the Medicare age to 60 so our most vulnerable Americans are covered as we battle this pandemic.
Additionally, our rural hospitals need more support to keep their doors open and maintain their high standards of care. Before the pandemic, over 24% of Kentucky’s rural hospitals were at a high-risk of closing. Rural health providers took a big financial hit when they could no longer perform the non-emergency procedures that keep them afloat, resulting in extensive layoffs and furloughs in many of Kentucky’s hospitals.
The federal government should fully fund all COVID-19 testing and treatment for the duration of this crisis, as well as the costs of personal protective equipment, to get our front-line workers equipment they desperately need. Front-line personnel who are routinely exposed to the coronavirus in the course of their work should be given hazard pay, just like our military members serving on the front lines.
When a vaccine is developed, every American must be guaranteed access, regardless of ability to pay. It is the morally and economically responsible thing to do. Rather than including provisions to control the costs of vaccines and treatments being developed in response to this outbreak, McConnell notoriously held up coronavirus funding in order to make sure Big Pharma could gouge prices. That is exactly the wrong thing to do in the face of the biggest public health threat this country has faced in generations.
In times of national crisis, we must stand united and work together for the health and security of everyone — that is what this country is all about. Throughout this difficult time, I’ve seen Kentuckians step up to help neighbors in need; our essential workers brave the front lines, often at great personal sacrifice; and our small businesses innovate to keep their doors open while supporting their communities. Through these everyday acts of care — small and immense — we will come out the other side of this stronger, together.
Amy McGrath is a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel running for U.S. Senate in Kentucky.