Universal healthcare in U.S. would have saved 212,000 lives, $459B in 2020, study finds

Universal healthcare coverage in the U.S. would have saved hundreds of thousands of lives as well as hundreds of billions of dollars through the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new analysis.

In 2020 alone, researchers from the Yale School of Public Health and other institutions estimated that more than 131,000 COVID deaths and almost 78,000 excess non-COVID deaths would have been averted with broader nationwide coverage.

Expanding that scope further through March 12, 2022, brought the total number of U.S. COVID deaths resulting from incomplete insurance coverage to nearly 339,000, according to the study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Since 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the public health, economic and moral repercussions of widespread dependence on employer-sponsored insurance, the most common source of coverage for working-age Americans,” the researchers wrote in the journal.

“Business closures and restrictions led to unemployment for more than 9 million individuals following the emergence of COVID-19. Consequently, many Americans lost their healthcare precisely at a time when COVID-19 sharply heightened the need for medical services.”

Without adequate insurance coverage, individuals are more often likely to postpone treatment for infections or other healthcare issues, the researchers wrote.

That delayed care translates to higher non-COVID disease incidence, more frequent COVID transmission and, in some cases, sick individuals still attending work for “fear of losing employer-sponsored health insurance during a pandemic,” they said.

Accompanying the estimated lives saved are substantial systemwide costs tied to preventable hospitalizations, lower negotiated rates and reduced administrative costs. During 2019, a non-pandemic year, these factors would have contributed to $438 billion in savings, the researchers wrote.

If Medicare rates had been applied to all COVID hospitalizations, for instance, the country would have seen $39.4 billion in hospitalization savings in 2020 and $105.6 billion in hospitalization savings through March 12, 2022, they wrote.

Taken alongside single payer’s other cost savings, this hypothetical system would have been $459 billion cheaper for the country than its current healthcare system in 2020, the researchers wrote.

The U.S. COVID death total surpassed 1 million reported deaths in May. Researchers noted that the tally accounts for approximately 16% of the world’s documented COVID mortality, even though the country only holds 4% of the global population and spends more on healthcare than any other country.

“Emergence of virulent pathogens is becoming more frequent, driven by climate change and other global forces,” researchers wrote in the study. “To facilitate recovery from the ongoing crisis and bolster pandemic preparedness, as well as safeguard well-being and prosperity more broadly, now is the time to transition to a healthcare system that can better serve the American people.”