The current Ebola threat has exposed how vulnerable the United States is to the possibility of a deadly disease run rampant. The problem isn’t in our knowledge of how to treat the illness. Effective measures are known and even, sometimes, used. The problem is that our healthcare system is designed for the profit of corporations rather than for the protection of people like you and me.
No profit, no care.
The initial victim of Ebola, Thomas Eric Duncan of Liberia, wasn’t properly treated at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital because he held no potential for profit. He wasn’t insured, so was initially sent home — to continue contaminating others. But that decision was just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the violations of human safety and dignity imposed by the for-profit system.
National Nurses United (NNU), the country’s largest nursing union, has been sounding the alarm about potential disaster for weeks. They’ve warned that hospitals do not have unified policies for handling Ebola cases, that medical personnel are inadequately trained in interacting with these patients, that supplies of eye protection, Hazmat suits, and fluid resistant gowns are inadequate, that isolation rooms are poorly equipped, that proper procedures for disposing of medical waste are lacking.
Bonnie Castillo, R.N., of the NNU, spoke to CBS about hospital preparedness:
We have a system failure. That is what we have to correct … Because we have a privatized health care system, it’s all over the board. There’s no uniformity or enforcement mechanism.
For-profit means little to no oversight.
Because of privatization, the federal government has little oversight authority. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have acknowledged as much. Spokesperson Abbigail Tumpey said:
There are 5,000 hospitals in the U.S. and I would say probably the number of them that have actually done drills or put plans in place is small. It’s up to each hospital to enforce infection control, and standards vary depending on funding for infection experts and time devoted to training.
For some facilities, those standards are abysmal. On Wednesday, the NNU released a “Statement by RN’s at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital.” Individual nurses were not identified out of fear for their jobs. However, they listed repeated and flagrant violations of procedures that would have protected patients, administrators, and medical workers from exposure to the disease.
Unsealed lab specimens from Mr. Duncan were sent through the hospital tube system that was used for all lab specimens; nurses who dealt with Mr. Duncan without proper protective equipment then went on to care for other patients; patients who may have been exposed to Mr. Duncan were transferred into areas where there were other, unexposed patients. The statement goes on and on, contradicting official releases by saying:
Were protocols breached? The nurses say there were no protocols.
A lack of healthcare coverage for patients, a lack of uniform standards and procedures for hospitals, and a lack of training for medical personnel, are a deadly combination when dealing with a disease like Ebola. It’s just this kind of situation that highlights the deficiencies of the for-profit system, as opposed to a system of universal healthcare. Profits are maximized when those who can’t pay are ignored, and when cost-cutting measures prevail over quality care.
Disease has no powers of discernment.
One factor has been left out of corporate equations, however. When deathly ill people are released, untreated, into the general population, their illness does not discern between the rich and the poor. Even the Koch brothers have to rub elbows with lesser mortals. Who drives their limousines, cooks their food, cleans their houses? How wide do the circles of interaction spread from each of those individuals? No one can count on immunity when disease is let loose upon a population.
Most developed countries have a system of universal healthcare — generally because they recognize an obligation to care for even “the least” among us. America seems impervious to such concerns.
Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Laurie Garrett recently wrote:
America’s special vulnerability to Ebola is its limitations on access to health care. In times of contagion, societal risk rises with every uninsured or underinsured individual who struggles to work or go to school with a fever. One doesn’t need to have a political position up or down on ‘Obamacare’ to recognize and solve this.
Of course, it’s in the Red States that the healthcare problem is at its worst. It’s not startling that Thomas Eric Duncan was allowed to die in Texas. Governor Rick Perry refused to use the Affordable Care Act to expand Medicaid coverage. Yet those multitudes who have been shut out of the medical system as a result are just as infectious to the rich as to the poor.
Ebola will take what victims it will, but there is one to which it is welcome: the for-profit medical system. That one death could create a vastly improved America.