A Late-Breaking Bulletin From PBS: “For Many Americans, Health Insurance is Tied to a Job”

Photograph Source: PBS NewsHour – CC BY 2.0

I would like to nominate the “Public” Broadcasting System’s (“P”BS) “NewsHour” and its economics reporter Paul Solomon for the 2020 Piss Down Our Backs and Tell Us Its Raining Prize in broadcast journalism.  Last Thursday, “P”BS “NewsHour” viewers got to see the show’s longtime economics correspondent (Paul Solomon) give a chilling account of how newly unemployed people are disastrously losing their health insurance in the middle of a pandemic.

“Consequences of the unemployment driven by the novel coronavirus pandemic will reverberate through the U.S. economy for months, if not years,” “P:BS reported, adding this: “One result: as millions of Americans lose their jobs, they are also losing their health care coverage — and for many, there aren’t affordable insurance alternatives — and now they have neither.”  The story had a stark title: “For Many Americans, Health Insurance is Tied to a Job – and Now They Have Neither.”

The “NewsHour’s” report was accurate and unnerving, full of first-person accounts from workers laid off from their jobs and removed from health insurance by the 2020 coronavirus recession:

Paul Solman: Case in point, asthmatic Robert Laurence, whose low-paying gigs have never come with benefits.

Robert Laurence: I was a trash collector. I was — they call them brand ambassadors. I worked at a call center.

Paul Solman: Health insurance is a luxury simply he can’t afford.

Robert Laurence: You kind of have a choice. You know, do I pay my car payment or do I get my inhaler?

Paul Solman: But aren’t you worried, even though you’re obviously quite young, there’s a pandemic out there, something really bad could happen to you, and you have no coverage?

Robert Laurence: I’m very worried about it. It’s just that I don’t have the money to really buy into that system. And, hopefully, I can get a better position. But, you know, the future is kind of looking bleak.

Paul Solman: And the economics of COVID-19 could make things bleak for years to come.

Anne Case (“NewsHour”-approved policy expert): It’s possible that many, many, many people will get tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of medical bills that they cannot pay.

Paul Solman: Frank Johnson hopes he isn’t one of them. So what happens if you get sick?

Frank Johnson: I’m just praying that I don’t get sick. And just hopefully, you know, not, nothing happens and nobody around me gets infected.

Thanks, “P”BS. Gee, who knew?

Anyone with two or three functioning gray cells, that’s who. The problem with the segment was its bizarre and frankly insulting tone of having discovered something that has long been identified as a serious problem with American capitalism – something activists, intellectuals, and citizens have been trying to correct for many years. Solomon framed his report as if it was some kind of a mystery that the United States absurdly and disastrously ties its extremely expensive for-profit health insurance system to employment….As if that was some kind of late breaking news bulletin…. As if this wasn’t a problem that numerous experts, activists, and ordinary citizens have been raising for many years. …As if Bernie Sanders didn’t run for president (with many millions of supporters) on Medicare for All in the last two presidential primary races (2016 and 2020)…..As if much of the industrialized world doesn’t grant people universal health coverage as an elementary human right.

As if the corporate-sponsored “P”BS NewsHour and “public” broadcasting system aren’t key part of the dominant state-capitalist ideological and communications that has worked to marginalize and treat as “extremist” and “radical” common-sense and humanistic calls to make health coverage a human right in the U.S.

As if we are all clueless morons about here in “public” television viewing land.

But kudos to Paul Solomon for discovering that America’s absurdly expensive health insurance system is tied to employment with terrible consequences in the middle of an economic meltdown and pandemic. What a heroic muckraker!

I have a suggestion for a follow-up story by Solomon.  I think he should pick up on a tip I got from reading Karl Marx’s 1867 book Capital.  If Marx was right, capitalist employers hire workers in order to make a profit from them and throw workers into the ranks of the unemployed (what Marx called “the reserve army of labor”) when capitalists no longer find it profitable to keep them on.  I think Solomon will find that a fruitful line of inquiry.

In the meantime, the “NewsHour’s” late-breaking bulletin about how US health insurance is dangerously tied to employment does seem to be born-out by the numbers.  According to a new report from the corporate-funded Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and the Urban Institute (UI), the tsunami of layoffs sparked by COVID-19 means that 43 million Americans could lose their health insurance in coming weeks and months. And 7 million of those newly jobless will be unable to afford new insurance as the recession continues and perhaps deepens.

Prior to the pandemic, RWJF and UI find, 160 million Americans, approximately half the population, got their medical insurance through their jobs.

Senior RWJF policy adviser Katherine Hempstead says that “The status quo is incredibly inefficient, it’s incredibly unfair, it’s tied to employment for no real reason. “This problem exposes a lot of the inadequacies in our system.”

Gee, who knew?  Now it’s time for the RWJF and UI to join Solomon in working on Marx’s tip – the one about how capitalists hire workers to exploit them and see workers as expendable once the profit in employing them goes away.

There is a story there, I’m sure.

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Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).