By BENJAMIN F. CHAVIS JR.
Today, Americans are facing unprecedented times. We are in the midst of a global pandemic, our country has fallen into an economic recession, and hundreds of thousands are protesting police brutality and racial injustice. But there is another epidemic in this country that must be addressed, and it must be addressed now.
CNN’s Don Lemon said it best, “There are two deadly viruses killing Americans: COVID-19 and racism.”
Because of the systematic racism that is rooted in our nation, racial disparities in American health care have caused illness, injury and death in minority communities across the country. Black Americans suffer the most at the hands of the American health care system. Now, we are seeing COVID-19 shine a much-needed light on the harsh reality that has been plaguing an entire race for centuries.
In my own home state of North Carolina, Black Americans make up 30% of COVID-19 cases and 34% of the COVID-19 deaths, even though they only make up 22% of the population. Really think about that math. How does it make sense?
That means, 162 Black North Carolinians will die due to COVID-19, which is 70 more than would be expected based on the demographic makeup of the state. That is 70 more Americans who will die just because of the color of their skin.
Unfortunately, these health care disparities are nothing new. Black Americans have long suffered from a severe lack of access to quality, affordable care, which predisposes them to increased rates of underlying conditions and illnesses. Due to the lack of access, Black Americans are often forced to travel very far for care. This usually means, if they have insurance, they must go to out-of-network facilities and often find themselves hit with exorbitant surprise medical bills.
Surprise medical bills are unanticipated costs related to out-of-network or emergency care a patient received. These bills can range from a $50 prescription drug to $30,000 in emergency transport. Not surprisingly, Black Americans suffer from a higher rate of surprise medical bills, at higher costs compared to White Americans.
Congress holds the pen when it comes to reforming surprise medical billing in this country, but they are falling far short of what needs to be done. There are multiple bills in the House and the Senate that claim to rectify this injustice, but all of them still leave the cost to patients or providers without holding insurance companies accountable.
While Congress is trying to figure it out, we are seeing the administration miss the mark as well. In a Twitter thread on June 22, CMS Administrator Seema Verma may have misdiagnosed the real root of the issue – insurers. Because of the blatant and intrinsic greed, these companies are starving patients of care and putting the financial burden on their shoulders.
In a recent Congressional hearing, Dr. Rhea Boyd, a practicing physician and health care scholar said, “ensuring that insurance is not a barrier to health care is really critical, particularly for African Americans…”
Insurance companies make billions of dollars every year by using sly tactics like skinny networks to lure consumers in and then slap them with a surprise medical bill when they go out-of-network. It is time to put a stop to insurance companies making billions off the backs of hardworking Americans.
It is clear that Senator Lamar Alexander and Representatives Frank Pallone and Greg Walden, three of the members committed to eradicating surprise medical billing, are in the pockets of “big insurance.” The bills they are sponsoring do not even bring insurance companies to the negotiating table, let alone hold them responsible.
We are halfway through 2020, and we still do not have proposed legislation that gets at the root of the surprise medical billing problem. We must get rid of skinny networks, improve access to care, and cover emergency services. It is time for insurance companies to pay, so we can save Black lives.
Black Lives Matter.
Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. is president and CEO of the National Newspaper Publishers Association based in Washington, DC. and he regularly comments on public policy issues that impact the quality of life of Black America. Chavis was the first person to coin the term “environmental racism.”