David Rosner continually talks to colleagues who are distraught about the American response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“When you are in a school of public health and a public health environment, people really feel when they are failing,” said Rosner, who studies public health and social history at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.
That defeated feeling is compounded by the fact that 1 million people in the US have died from Covid-19 – the highest Covid death rate among large wealthy countries.
According to public health experts, the virus’s outsized impact on the US can be attributed in part to underinvestment in long-term care, in primary care and in public health departments. As a result, some people were more vulnerable to Covid and had little connection to – or trust in – the healthcare providers who urged them to socially distance, to wear masks and to get vaccinated.
It was a disconnect, they say, that was only exacerbated by misinformation – particularly by Republican leaders’ undermining of scientists’ recommendations.
“This is more than just a failure of a health system,” said Rosner. “It’s a failure of an American ideology.”
A history of poor healthcare quality and access
The problems in US society and healthcare that lead to the high death toll predate the pandemic.
In 2018, the country spent an average of $10,637 on healthcare per person, almost twice as much as other large and wealthy countries, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation. And yet, compared with those countries, the US had a significantly lower life expectancy and the worst healthcare quality and access.
Almost $4,000 of that additional spending comes from higher payments to hospitals for inpatient and outpatient hospital care. Meanwhile, over the last decade, US spending for state public and local health departments decreased by 16% and 18% respectively.
“We have really valued the hospital care to the exclusion of public health and community healthcare in this country,” said Sheila Davis, CEO of the non-profit Partners in Health, which tries to bring healthcare to the world’s poorest places.
She argues that reimbursement patterns in the US focus on care delivered at hospitals, “which is the most expensive place to deliver care, with the most expensive providers”, she said.
As an alternative, she points to a comprehensive model, “which has excellent hospital care but also has a strong public health department, as well as community care”, such as federally qualified health centers in underserved communities.
The one health area where the US spends significantly less than other countries is on long-term care, including nursing homes. In 2018, the country spent $516 a person on long-term care, less than half of what comparable countries spent, according to KFF data.
The pandemic exposed these disparities. About three-quarters of Americans who died from Covid were 65 or older – including more than 150,000 nursing home residents, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
A majority – more than two-thirds – of