Today, more than 185,000 Americans and 1,900 Washingtonians are dead from COVID-19. The 5.7 million Americans and 73,000 Washingtonians and 6 million Americans who have so far survived the virus will suffer consequences we cannot yet comprehend.

This year, more than one million state residents sought unemployment insurance. More than 600,000 citizens lack health insurance, and several hundred thousand are under-insured. 100,000 new enrollees in our state’s Apple Health Program in the past four months brought our Medicaid enrollment to 25 percent of Washington’s total population. Racial inequities have led to higher COVID-19 mortality for Latinos and African Americans, who have significantly higher rates of the underlying health conditions that would be diagnosed and treated with adequate health care. 

As physicians, we have been on the front lines and have been devastated at losing patients because they can’t afford treatment. We have signed Washington state death certificates listing the underlying cause as “lack of health insurance.” In one case, a woman in her 40s died of breast cancer because she couldn’t afford treatment. Another woman, in her early 60s, died of heart disease. These cases are haunting, but they are not rare. No one should die because they don’t have adequate — or any — health insurance. And yet here we are.

Health policy has rarely been seen as urgent. And yet, credit must be given to legislators who, in 2019, created and funded a Pathway to Universal Health Care: “The health care authority is directed to convene a work group on establishing a universal health care system in Washington … The work group must study and make recommendations to the legislature on how to create, implement, maintain, and fund a  universal health care system that may include publicly funded, publicly administered, and publicly and privately delivered health care that is sustainable and affordable to all Washington residents.”

Health Care for All-Washington played a critical role in shepherding the legislation and amendments strengthening the composition and outcomes of the work group. An impressive, 33-member Universal Health Care Work Group (UHCWG) was convened and has been working for nearly a year. They met Tuesday, Aug. 25, via Zoom. Materials and video links are available at https://bit.ly/UHCWorkGroupPage . 

For decades, we have heard the canard, “we can’t afford to pay for universal health care.” But what is the value of a life? What does it take to recognize an emergency? Clearly, the state has acted quickly when other pressing matters demanded. In 1995, just 10 days after King County voters rejected funding a new baseball stadium, Gov. Mike Lowry called a special session. In just three days, the Legislature approved a financing plan. When Boeing started looking outside to build the 787, Gov. Gary Locke in 2003 convinced the Legislature to pass a $3.2 billion tax break. Ten years later, Gov. Jay Inslee signed the largest state corporate tax break ever given to a single company, $8.7 billion more to Boeing. Clearly, governors and the Legislature can act urgently — when corporate interests come calling. 

During crises, government investment in its infrastructure and its people pays long term benefits. When the World War II draft found 40 percent medically unfit for service, our government dramatically expanded its involvement in medical care, investing in medical schooling and hospital construction, expanding medical research and providing care for soldiers and their families. 

We understand that the long-term benefit of a healthy population will provide more economic stability than any corporate tax break. Seventy-one percent of Americans support publicly funded universal health care. COVID-19 has laid bare our weaknesses; we must urgently demand health care for all, by contacting the Universal Health Care Work Group through the Washington Health Care Authority (HCAUniversalHealthCareWorkGroup@hca.wa.gov ) to express our support for a universal health care system where state government sets the benefits package with public input, contracts directly with all providers and pays for all care, with healthcare provided by private and public entities as it is now. 

Since the pandemic began, many of us on the healthcare front lines have been termed “heroes.”  But we need our legislators to be heroes, too. It’s time you let them know we need a true universal health care system. 

•••

Dr. Chris Covert-Bowlds has been a family medicine doctor for 26 years in Washington state, and for the last 10 years in Seattle. He is a board member for Health Care for All — Washington. Dr. Daniel Schaffer is a retired primary care physician in Spokane who worked as an emergency room physician and operated three urgent care clinics and is an active member of Health Care for All — Washington.

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