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Opinion Why this pandemic is an indictment of socialized medicine

Medical staffers work in the intensive care unit of the Bassini Hospital, in Cinisello Balsamo, near Milan, on Tuesday. (Claudio Furlan/AP)
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If you think today’s pandemic bolsters the case for socialized medicine, then ask yourself a simple question: If you came down with a serious case of covid-19, would you rather be in an Italian hospital or an American one? Even presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden knows the answer. “With all due respect to Medicare-for-all,” Biden said during the last Democratic candidates’ debate, “you have a single-payer system in Italy. It doesn’t work there.”

While the federal government’s pandemic preparedness was sorely lacking, the fact is America’s system of private medicine has left us far better positioned for today’s crisis than other nations. As Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, explained in an interview, here in the United States, “we’re going to have a better experience [with this pandemic] than a lot of other countries because of how good our system is at delivering critical care.”

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

Gottlieb is right. The United States has 20 to 30 intensive care unit beds for every 100,000 people, the most per capita of any country in the world. That is at least 75 percent more than in the United Kingdom, where the government-run National Health Service had a meager 5,900 ventilators before the pandemic struck.

The result of these shortages is rationing. Long before today’s crisis, the National Center for Biotechnology Information found “studies from Japan and the UK determined that admissions to ICUs are severely limited for the very elderly and patients perceived to have little chance of survival.” In good times, critical care is rationed under socialized medicine. In a pandemic, the rationing is even more severe. In Italy, some hospitals have been so overwhelmed that they have been forced to prioritize young and otherwise healthy patients over the elderly and infirm.

The pandemic has stretched even America’s hospital capacity. But if we had Medicare-for-all, our hospital capacity would have been even less. According to a study by Charles Blahous of the Mercatus Center, Medicare-for-all would cut payments to physicians and hospitals by 40 percent. Guess what happens when you cut payments by 40 percent. You get fewer doctors and hospital beds.

Contrast the incredible job our private health-care system is doing today with the utter incompetence of the federal government in preparing for today’s pandemic. The current lockdown might have been avoided if the government had been able to rapidly deploy mass testing to isolate infected persons while allowing healthy people to go about their lives. But the United States lost six crucial weeks in ramping up testing — forcing our country to adopt population-based mitigation — thanks to bureaucratic incompetence. The FDA, in its wisdom, refused to allow private labs to develop tests and issued only a single emergency authorization to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, whose test then failed. The restrictions were not lifted until March. Once they were, a private company, Abbott Labs, took only weeks to come up with a coronavirus test that can give positive results in as little as five minutes. Today, 85 percent of all coronavirus tests are being conducted by private labs.

Carlos Covarrubias had to close his practice when the coronavirus pandemic hit, but emotional and spiritual support remain a lifeline to anxious patients. (Video: Shane Alcock/The Washington Post)

Or take the shortages of protective gear and ventilators, which the federal government was supposed to have stored for an emergency. In 2003, the George W. Bush administration created the Strategic National Stockpile to make sure Americans would have enough masks, gowns, face shields and other critical items in a pandemic. But the stockpile was depleted during the 2009 swine flu pandemic and never fully replenished, leaving medical workers without sufficient protection today. In 2008, the Bush administration launched an initiative to stockpile 40,000 ventilators for a pandemic. But 10 years and two government contracts later, none had been delivered under the program — forcing federal officials to employ a 1950s law, the Defense Production Act, to require companies to produce ventilators in the midst of the pandemic.

The path out of today’s crisis requires three things: the deployment of mass testing, the development of a therapeutic to treat covid-19 and ultimately a vaccine. We are counting on the ingenuity of our free-enterprise system to speed all three developments. A few months ago, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was chastising the pharmaceutical industry for its greed. Now all of us are depending on that industry to save us from the coronavirus.

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So no, today’s pandemic is not evidence of the need for socialized medicine. If anything, it is an indictment of the dangerous idea that we should put the government bureaucrats who could not develop tests or stockpile masks, gowns and ventilators in charge of our entire health-care system.

Read more:

Marc A. Thiessen: We were caught unprepared by a pandemic 9/11. The failures began long before Trump.

Gary Abernathy: Let’s quit pretending — social distancing isn’t as distant as advertised

Jennifer Rubin: Health precedes economic revival. At least the governors know that.

Paul Waldman: States are facing a budgetary cataclysm. Will Republicans be willing to help?

Michael L. Barnett, Caroline O. Buckee and Yonatan H. Grad: What we need to know before we can end social distancing