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Medical Care and Opioids in the US

Travis Cunha

Feb 27, 2023

This March marks three years since the Covid-19 pandemic upended people's lives and exacerbated the already-volatile conditions in capitalist societies. The American healthcare system was woefully unprepared for a pandemic, resulting in a catastrophe for hospitals in New York City that ran out of masks, beds and respirators. The pandemic lay bare the cruelty and chaos of our for-profit system, one which led to thousands of unnecessary deaths each year even before the Covid-19 crisis. 

 

President Joe Biden recently boasted that he would be a “nightmare” for any Republicans seeking to slash Obamacare and Social Security, which Biden himself promised to cut in a 1995 speech. For Americans, one of the primary causes of bankruptcy is medical debt, which doesn't exist in many countries. Before Covid -19 deepened the medical debt crisis, about 137 million Americans faced stifling debt as a result of healthcare for themselves or a loved one. Credit Karma, an American credit company which processes medical debt, claimed prior to the pandemic that medical debt accounted for 60% of past-due credit payments. According to the company, between January 2020 and March 2021, another $2.2 billion dollars added to the already $47 billion in medical debt. 

 

For so much money, Americans are at least receiving world-class healthcare, the best technology can provide, right? A recent Gallup survey suggests otherwise. For the first time ever, it found that less than half of the nation feels the quality of healthcare is “excellent or good,” while a whopping 20% rate it as “poor.” 48% of Americans feel the healthcare system today has “major problems,” according to the Gallup poll. The perverse incentives of our capitalist healthcare systems has meant a lack of preventative care or long-term planning by doctors and other medical practitioners. This has resulted in a “fix it now” ethos from insurance companies chasing their profit margins. 

 

An article in Harvard Health illustrates just one absurd example: “A cortisone injection for tendonitis in the ankle is typically covered by health insurance. A shoe insert that might work just as well may not be.” The article details how for-profit insurance companies actually hold us back from receiving the care that utilizes the best techniques and technologies. “Home-based treatments, such as some geriatric care and cancer care, may be cost-effective and preferred by patients. But, because current payment systems don’t routinely cover this care, these innovative approaches may never become widespread. Telehealth, which could bring medical care to millions with poor access, was relatively rare before the pandemic, partly due to lack of insurance coverage. And yet, telehealth has flourished by necessity, demonstrating how effective it can be.”

 

The fix-it-now attitude and drive for profits are also evident in our ongoing opioid addiction crisis. Overdose deaths significantly increased over the last decade, with over 100,000 drug-related overdose deaths in 2021 alone. In late 2020, news emerged that Purdue Pharma had hired the infamous consulting firm McKinsey & Company to "turbocharge" sales of Oxycontin, in part by persuading doctors that the drug was not addictive. In March 2022, Purdue Pharma and the Sacklers family settled in a deal that shielded the family from further any future legal liability, allowing it to escape unscathed with billions of dollars.

 

According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, pharmacies fill 153 million orders for opioids every year and these prescription drugs account for over 70% of overdoses from drugs in the United States. A study by the CDC states, “the amount of opioids prescribed in 2015 remained approximately three times as high as in 1999 and varied substantially across the country.” Over the past twenty years, prescriptions have increased while satisfaction with the healthcare system as a whole has declined.

 

Our government, which is captured by Big Pharma, could not care less about providing the American people with quality healthcare. The harsh reality for millions of Americans is that if you need lifesaving medical care, you will likely incur huge medical debt and may risk becoming addicted to opioids to treat the pain following a surgical procedure. Cities like those in the Rust Belt already gutted by deindustrialization have been even further devastated of the opioid crisis, the predictable result of our profit-driven government turning its back on Americans while giving a free pass to corporate power. 

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