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Op-Ed: We Need to Pass the New York Health Act Now

Brent O’Leary volunteering at Elmhurst Hospital at the height of the pandemic in 2020

March 23, 2021 Op-Ed By Brent O’Leary

In our second year of pandemic life, having lost over half a million Americans lives, we face a cycle of surge and mutation alongside a significant burden of illness and deaths for years to come.

There has never been a more compelling time for health reform. We need to pass the New York Health Act now.

The New York Health Act will provide comprehensive health care coverage for every person who lives or works full time in New York State.

It is all too apparent how staggering injustices baked into our pre-pandemic norms cost us tremendously. While life expectancy dropped last year, that figure is twice as high for Latinos and three times higher among Black Americans. Our broader economy does not escape the generational damage done by deep-rooted disparities.

We need a functional healthcare infrastructure and to achieve that, decades of disinvestments aimed at our vulnerable communities must stop.

Our healthcare system fails at its most basic functions, despite being expensive and accelerating in cost.

Consider how patient care is based on insurance status instead of care standards. Basic benefits like paid sick days or parental leave are at discretion of employers.

Life choices like the freedom to work independently or start a business is limited because of fear of losing coverage or access to preferred providers. These arrangements are discordant with health goals or the needs of a rapidly changing workforce.

Despite increasing health insurance coverage, fewer people can afford care because of skyrocketing premiums, deductibles, and co-pays.

Brent O’Leary is a candidate running for the 26th district council seat

The result is delays in seeing a doctor until illness has progressed and require more intervention, by which point treatment is cost prohibitive. Profit tracks alongside illness severity, so that even the wealthy are just one accident or diagnosis away from significant asset loss.

This system is breaking our clinicians and healthcare workforce. Physicians increasingly can’t practice independently and find themselves expendable in a revenue-driven environment whose goals are at odds with health and wellness. Administrative tasks tied to insurance arrangements mean clinicians spend less and less time with patients.

The very subsidies that were designed to support our poorest zip codes are instead diverted to private hospitals serving the fewest but wealthiest patients. During a pandemic many healthcare workers were furloughed while community clinics and primary care practices were forced to close.

All of these are underscored by record profits at the height of the coronavirus emergency by insurance and hospital corporations, all consolidating to outcompete each other over the price of care. When profits are driven by disease and suffering, patients are no longer healthcare consumers. Patients in this system are products whose health status are commoditized.

The practice of profiteering off our suffering must stop. We must reclaim our resources.

Poll after poll show that New Yorkers support the ideas in the New York Health Act. Meaningful health reform is possible with this key legislation. It passed in our State Assembly four times. We must do it again and get it passed in the State Senate.

The New York Health Care Act by providing health care to all New Yorkers takes on the inequities and injustices in our healthcare system that were exploited by this coronavirus. It re-allocates resources to serve all New Yorkers, not just the wealthy.

It ensures access to primary care services, medically necessary testing, prescribed treatments and vaccines. Benefits such as parental or sick leave will no longer be tied to employment status or wealth and it removes the massive administrative overhead and bureaucracy, re-aligning the relationship of nurses and physicians back to patients.

It represents a shift in emphasis from illness-based care to preventive primary care, and focuses on helping New Yorkers achieve our most optimal health and well-being.

Balancing the New York State budget should not fall on the backs of the working class. To put this imperative into context, tremendous pressure on our healthcare system will only grow in the new Covid normal.

Worse, the social and economic corollaries from widening gaps in equity, access and affordability are being eclipsed by emergent crises. Exponential change can’t be addressed by conventional means. Equitable healthcare legislation is a bold and necessary action to safeguard our future.

For practicality, healthcare reform belongs to broader strategic conversations. Decades of brutal austerity measures devastated not just our public health infrastructure, it also destroyed other safety nets that we each paid into for just such events like a pandemic or extreme weather, when only a robust government response can protect us all.

New Yorkers deserve equitable opportunities toward health. We are at an inflection point. Serious threats will continue to push our healthcare system to the brink of collapse. I echo our Health Commissioner Dave Chokshi in asserting that this pandemic is both tragedy and testament to what can change when the will is there. I join this broad and rapidly growing coalition and movement, to demand fiscal equity and enact meaningful reform in healthcare.

Our strength in District 26 lies in our diversity, and we are only as strong as our most vulnerable. We owe ourselves and our youngest New Yorkers a shot at equitable opportunities towards health and wealth. The time to act is now. Join us in getting the New York Health Care Act passed.

Brent O’Leary is a candidate running for City Council in the 26th District

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