Britain’s famous Dr. Johnson once said that nothing concentrates the mind like the threat of an imminent hanging. Well, nothing concentrates our thinking about the hazards of employer-based health insurance than losing our jobs.


Enter Covid-19. As we shed jobs, we kiss our health insurance good-bye.


During the Democratic primary debates last fall, candidates spent a lot of time on the subject of Medicare-For-All versus employer-based insurance that covered 160 million Americans as recently as a few weeks ago.


And then the tsunami. Unemployment is soaring. Millions of Americans can no longer take health insurance for granted.


And so, for the first time since the Johnson administration, we are forced to reassess our entire system of health insurance. This may warm the cockles of Bernie Sanders’s heart.


With the exception of the USA, every industrial country on earth offers single-payer health insurance. No co-pays. No refusal of service for pre-existing conditions.


In Denmark, where I lived a few years ago, their Medicare-for-All plan, loved by both liberals and conservatives, covers every citizen from cradle to grave. And the quality of medicine in Denmark is every bit as good as ours.


In Denmark and 26 other industrial countries, no $2,800 to repair a laceration from sliding into second base. No $45,000 for a Ceasarian section. No $35,000 for a routine eye operation.


And let’s remember something else. Twenty percent of every dollar we pay for insurance does not improve our health. It goes to the insurance companies: $600 billion dollars of the $3 trillion we pay annually for health care.


The average cost of a family health insurance plan in the USA is $21,000. Employers pay approximately 70% of that cost. For an employee earning $42,000 each year, that means that health insurance jacks up the cost of insurance by 50%. No wonder employers are handing out pink slips or refusing to pay benefits altogether.


With a single-payer plan, employers would no longer need to shoulder these costs. They could afford to pay higher wages.


And this is critical, for real wages in the USA have barely budged since 1980. In fact, for low-income workers, real wages have declined nearly 21%, contributing to our opioid crisis and climbing suicide rates.


Yes, taxes would increase to pay the costs of coverage. My Federal income tax is half what I’d pay in Denmark. But if you add what I now pay in insurance premiums, and then add to that my state, county, town, village, school, and sin taxes, we pay about the same.


Of course the insurance and pharmaceutical companies will cry bloody murder. They will doctor the numbers to suggest that we will be taxed to death, a carbon copy of what they claimed before Medicare was approved by Congress in 1965.


If you believe them, good luck to you. But regardless of your own opinion, crises historically speed up the pace of change, and the current COVID crisis is unlikely to be an exception to this rule.


— Gary Ostrower is an Alfred University professor.