Voters Head to Polls With Anxiety Over Medical Bills as Coronavirus Spreads

As Democratic primary voters head to the polls in South Carolina ahead of Super Tuesday, a new poll found that the American public is more worried about being able to afford unexpected medical bills, insurance deductibles and prescription drug costs than about being able to pay for housing, food and transportation.

The poll, which revealed intense public anxiety about the cost of health care, came as Democrats slammed the Trump administration’s response to the global outbreak of a novel strain of coronavirus that appears likely to spread within the United States after triggering global panic. The findings could also provide new ammunition for presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders, who routinely criticizes the private health care industry’s profiteering when promoting his Medicare for All proposal. Sanders is currently pushing to secure his position as the definitive frontrunner in the Democratic primary.

In a nationwide survey of 1,207 adults released by the Kaiser Family Foundation on Friday, about two-thirds said they are either “very worried” (35 percent) or “somewhat worried” (30 percent) about paying unexpected medical bills because a medical service was not covered by their insurance plan or a provider was out of their plan’s network. Nearly 50 percent of insured adults said they worried about being able to afford their insurance deductible, which is the annual amount patients must pay up front for health care before insurance kicks in. Four in ten worry about affording their insurance premiums to begin with.

Prescription drug prices ranked third on the list of financial worries, just ahead of making mortgage and rent payments, with 45 percent of respondents saying they are worried about affording the medicines they need. Respondents were generally less worried about paying for their home utility bills and buying food for their families, although more than a third said they worry about affording these basic human necessities.

The poll was conducted from February 13 to 18, when the coronavirus was generating increasingly alarming international headlines. While pollsters did not mention the coronavirus, dozens of suspected and confirmed cases in the U.S. of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, are stoking anxiety nationwide. To what extent the coronavirus will either spread or be contained by public health efforts remains anybody’s guess, but experts have cast doubt on a number of statements issued by President Trump and other top administration officials.

Trump Under Fire for Coronavirus Response

Over the past week, the White House has come under intense fire for proposing funding cuts to infectious disease programs, deploying unprepared health workers to coronavirus quarantine sites, spreading misinformation, downplaying the danger of the outbreak and routing its public messaging through the office of Vice President Mike Pence, who has a questionable record of responding to outbreaks of disease. The administration is reportedly diverting funds from other public health programs to pay for the federal coronavirus response, including a heating bill assistance program that helps lower-income families stay warm during the wintertime.

In Congress, Democrats slammed the White House this week for initially lowballing its emergency funding request to combat coronavirus and refusing to guarantee that a COVID-19 vaccine would be widely affordable and accessible once developed.

Taxpayers have already invested $700 million in publicly-funded research on coronaviruses and vaccines since the SARS outbreak in 2002, largely through the National Institutes of Health, according to watchdogs at Public Citizen. However, Alex Azar, a former pharmaceutical executive and Trump’s health czar, told lawmakers this week that “price controls” would hamper private investment in coronavirus vaccines and would be out of the question.

Zain Rizvi, a drug pricing expert at Public Citizen, said U.S. taxpayers are routinely forced to pay twice as much for medicines used around the world.

“The National Institutes of Health spends over $41 billion a year on biomedical research, and that is the foundation of much innovation in this country,” Rizvi said in an interview. “Industry often uses the research funded by taxpayers to help develop new products and turns around and charges taxpayers exorbitant prices.”

Democrats Pounce as White House Frets Over Economy

As Saturday’s crucial primary vote in North Carolina approached, Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg and other Democratic presidential contenders roundly criticized Trump as unprepared to address a potential public health crisis while Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren renewed calls to overhaul the nation’s broken health care system.

On Friday, Sanders continued his campaign for a national health plan that would cover everyone regardless of their ability to pay, which the democratic socialist has pledged to pass quickly after taking office.

“Besides passing Medicare for All so everyone can see a doctor or get a vaccine for free, my administration will greatly expand funding for the Center for Disease Control and National Institutes of Health, work with the international community, including with the World Health Organization, and invest in research and technology to make vaccines available quickly,” Sanders said in a statement.

Warren, who has backed away from campaigning on Medicare for All, proposed transitioning toward Medicare for All over a three-year period and establishing a public insurance option in the meantime. Other leading Democrats in the presidential race favor a “public option” but oppose Medicare for All.

On Thursday, Warren introduced symbolic legislation would divert funding for Trump’s wall on the Mexican border to public health efforts and previously released a plan for containing a coronavirus outbreak.

“Rather than use taxpayer dollars to pay for a monument to hate and division, my bill will help ensure that the federal government has the resources it needs to adequately respond to this emergency,” Warren said in a statement.

In their public statements, White House officials close to Trump have appeared preoccupied with the outbreak’s impact on Wall Street. Trump has planned to give himself credit for a healthy economy in his reelection campaign, and reports suggested his advisers worry that the coronavirus outbreak could harm the economy and endanger his chances at a second term.

Larry Kudlow, director of the White House National Economic Council, told reporters on Friday that the U.S. economy remains strong while global markets fell into a tailspin.

“I just think everybody, whether you’re an investor or whether you’re an ordinary mainstream person, people should not overreact,” Kudlow said.

Pence and other administration officials have touted Trump’s punitive travel restrictions as an effective guardrail against the spread of coronavirus, but critics say these efforts play into the president’s nativist base and will not prevent new infections in the U.S. The Warren and Sanders campaigns did not respond to a request for comment from Truthout by the time this article was published, but Sanders said in an earlier statement that the nation needs a president who “does not play politics with our health and national security.”

Whether the coronavirus will have a long-term impact on the economy and the presidential race remains to be seen. However, Trump and Republicans in Congress have made a number of high-profile attempts to slash health care coverage and spending, and if the latest polling is any evidence, voters are already worried about affording a doctor’s visit if they get sick.