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  • Caitlin Coakley

Vaccine Hesitancy is Prolonging the Pandemic, And Our Broken Healthcare System Bears Responsibility

Increasing cases, reemerging mask mandates, new variants - The Covid-19 pandemic is starting to feel never-ending, much to the frustration of Virginians who have spent the past year and a half dutifully following health and safety protocols. With more than a third of adult Americans saying they don’t intend to get vaccinated, essentially incubating the virus and providing fertile ground to spawn new, more severe variants, many vaccinated adults feel like they’re being put in time-out for the misbehavior of their peers.

But putting the sole blame on vaccine skeptics misses the bigger picture: Our broken healthcare system has eroded the public trust in the pharmaceutical, insurance, and healthcare industries for years.

The same way Covid variants breed and spread through unvaccinated hosts, distrust in our health institutions has bred through each hospital overcharge, unaffordable prescription, and inexplicable denial of health insurance. Frankly, it’s no wonder that so many Americans have finally arrived at the conclusion that healthcare figureheads make recommendations based primarily on profit margins - even if this particular epiphany is occurring at the worst possible time.

You don’t have to dig deep to find examples of the way our for-profit healthcare model has bilked sick and vulnerable people for thousands. Health insurance companies may have started as a communal model to spread the burden of health care costs; however, the industry has grown into a business opportunity that stands in opposition to its more charitable origins. The transparency provided by the Affordable Care Act reveals that insurers who sold plans over HealthCare.gov - that is to say, most of the large ones - denied 17% of in-network claims and 14% of out-of-network claims in 2019.

Hospitals, meanwhile, notoriously overcharge health insurance providers and patients alike - to the point where many patients end up needing to hire legal help to dispute outrageous medical bills. We’ve all heard the horror stories - $30 for a single ibuprofen tablet, $100 for a bandaid, $50 for an ice pack. Overcharging patients who are seeking care because they are ill, or in pain, or frightened for their loved ones is a particularly distasteful form of kicking someone while they are down. Indeed, medical debt is the leading cause of bankruptcy in the United States. Patients are regularly counseled to dispute their initial hospital bill because of the frequency of errors in coding, as well as the providers’ willingness to write off some of the charges - a practice that is perhaps helpful in the moment, but overall adds to the skepticism that healthcare providers charge based on the patients’ best interests, rather than their own profit.

Adding insult to injury is the fact that after the visit to a healthcare provider - and the accompanying bill - the patient is often sent off with a prescription that may be similarly unaffordable. A round of antibiotics for a common bacterial infection might not empty your bank account, but the more unique a patient’s health needs, the more expensive their medications are. Those with a chronic illness are essentially at the mercy of the medical-industrial complex, often having to choose between care and prescriptions that cost thousands of dollars each month and paying other essential bills.

After a lifetime of being overcharged, misdiagnosed, denied claims, and otherwise nickel-and-dimed by the U.S. healthcare industry, it’s little wonder that so many Americans would see the combination of a global healthcare crisis and a rapidly-developed vaccine touted as just short of miraculous, and become deeply skeptical. For many who have had to frequently rely on the healthcare system, it seems that each illness, injury, or emergency has been treated as another opportunity to upsell another pill or procedure. And with governments across the world ready to write the check to secure vaccination dosages, why wouldn’t pharmaceutical companies take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime business opportunity the same way they have seemingly always identified an individual’s poor health as a business opportunity?

Of course, a keen observer may notice that the average demographics of the vaccine-hesitant don’t exactly align politically with the political faction that has historically been fighting the for-profit healthcare model that allows price-gouging to flourish (bluntly: Most people refusing the vaccine are Republicans, whereas Democrats have been the ones sounding the alarm about for-profit healthcare). And a cynic may notice the overlap between the anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers, and anti-healthcare-reformers and conclude that their refusal is born out of simple contrarianism rather than an act of rebellion against capitalist health care.

The obvious counter-argument to those who are refusing the vaccine because they don’t trust the motives of those who developed it would be to point out that wearing a mask costs nearly nothing and effectively prevents them from contracting Covid-19 and ending up at the mercy of the industries they distrust, from hospitals and their opaque and incomprehensible billing practices, to their insurance companies’ questionable justifications to deny a patient’s claim.

But we cannot put the entirety of the blame on social media disinformation and individual decision without also coming to grips with the way that our broken healthcare system has contributed to the lack of public trust. To ensure that we, as a nation, are ready to face the next public health crisis, we have to start by overhauling the model of healthcare services in our country so that every individual is not only able to access care but willing to follow their providers’ recommendations to keep themselves safe and healthy.

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