Underneath a heap of hospital blankets, Stephen seemed small for a 7-year-old. His chest rose and fell rapidly, a frightening rhythm given his history of asthma. His parents stood nearby as veteran witnesses — Stephen had been admitted to a Cleveland safety net hospital for asthma four times already this year — but familiarity offers little comfort when your child struggles to breathe. When asked if their son used his asthma inhalers, they replied, “It depends. When we can afford them, he takes them. But when we can’t, it could be a few weeks.”
Stephen represents one of more than 430,000 hospitalizations each year due to asthma. At a cost of $56 billion annually, complications from asthma can be prevented with regular medications (inhalers), avoidance of triggers like dust and mold, and access to health care, which usually means access to health insurance. Stephen didn’t have the latter.
Of the diseases we are taught in medical school, a sudden worsening of asthma, known as an exacerbation, is a relatively common cause of illness in children and adults. To identify the cause of a disease, doctors are trained in the differential diagnosis. This bedrock of medical education encourages doctors — those in training, like us, as well as those with years of experience — to compile a list of causes that match a patient’s symptoms. In a way, the differential is half medicine, half Sherlock Holmes.
Chest pain, for example, might include differential diagnoses that range from heart attack to having eaten too many buffalo wings. Yet there’s a particular cause of illness — in Stephen’s case, a nonpulmonary culprit — that is unique to American health care: America’s private health insurance system.
Recent months provide ample context. As the latest Obamacare repeal efforts took the form of Graham-Cassidy 1.0 and 2.0, the GOP bill would have kicked 32 million Americans off their health insurance. Patients with preexisting conditions like asthma would have seen sharp increases in their health insurance premiums (in the case of metastatic cancer, to the tune of six digits), and Medicaid reimbursements to Planned Parenthood would have been banned, effectively barring millions of women from reproductive and preventive health care.
Both Republican and Democratic efforts have done little to change the fact that thousands of Americans die from lack of health coverage. America’s fragmented and inequitable health system is a sinking ship and recent fixes — often in the form of private health insurance industry bailouts or shutouts — are like placing tissue paper over the leaks in this doomed vessel.
No bacteria or viruses harm health more than policies that effectively prevent millions of individuals from access to affordable health insurance to pay for life-altering health care, including the recent ill-conceived executive order. As American health care maintains its appalling position as a leading cause of financial burden and bankruptcy, an equitable response is essential. That means creating a system in which access to health care is based on need, not the ability to pay. As future doctors, we are being trained to identify root causes of disease. That’s why we support Medicare for all.
Momentum toward an improved and expanded Medicare for all health system is at historic highs. The majority of American physicians now support single-payer health care, and 60 percent of Americans believe that the federal government has a responsibility to ensure health care for all citizens.