'Surprised' Trump considers next steps for uninsured as coronavirus spreads

As the coronavirus outbreak intensifies, Team Trump is reportedly eyeing something akin to a Medicare-for-All plan - but only for a little while.
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump talks about preparedness to confront the coronavirus outbreak during a meeting with African-American leaders in the Cabinet Room of the White House, on Feb. 27, 2020.Leah Millis / Reuters
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By Steve Benen

When it comes to the coronavirus outbreak, it's easy to have confidence in core elements of the health care system. After all, the United States has among the finest medical professionals and medical facilities in the world.

It's far more difficult, however, to have confidence in Americans' access to that system. Tens of millions of Americans remain uninsured -- a preventable disaster that was improving better before Donald Trump's presidency. Complicating matters, many Americans are also under-insured -- a problem the Republican White House made worse by expanding the availability of "junk plans."

Under normal circumstances, this is both a serious policy challenge and frightening hazard for millions of families. But when there's a viral outbreak, the conditions are anything but normal. As the public-health emergency surrounding the coronavirus intensifies, the United States is confronting a dynamic unfamiliar in most developed nations: citizens with the relevant symptoms aren't sure whether they can afford to seek medical care.

What's more, if uninsured or under-insured Americans go to the emergency room, hospitals have to take on the financial burden of providing expensive treatments for patients who have no way of paying their bills.

It's against this backdrop that Donald Trump participated in a roundtable coronavirus briefing yesterday at the National Institutes of Health, where the president made an unscripted comment.

"Well, we're going to look at the uninsured because they have a big problem. And we're going to look at the uninsured people that -- you know, this came -- it was a surprise to all of us. It just happened. It shows what can happen in life. But we're going to be looking at the uninsured and see if we can help them out."

In context, I think Trump's reference to being "surprised" pointed to COVID-19, not the fact that millions of Americans lack quality, affordable health insurance.

But this didn't make the quote any less jarring. "It shows what can happen in life." Well, yes, and before the coronavirus outbreak, all kinds of things can happen in the lives of American families in which they need some semblance of health security. And yet, the surprised president has taken a variety of steps to undermine that security -- first by supporting GOP legislation that would've sent the uninsured rate soaring, then by taking steps to sabotage the Affordable Care Act, and then by asking the courts to tear down the existing system altogether.

As for the near-future, the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that the administration is considering "using a national disaster program to pay hospitals and doctors for their care of uninsured people infected with the new coronavirus." The article added, "In natural disasters such as hurricanes, hospitals and medical facilities can be reimbursed under a federal program that pays them about 110% of Medicare rates for treating patients such as those evacuated from hard-hit areas."

Or put another way, Team Trump is eyeing something akin to a Medicare-for-All plan -- but only for a little while, and only for those with very specific symptoms.