Universal Health Care Could Have Saved More Than 330,000 U.S. Lives during COVID

Universal Health Care Could Have Saved More Than 330,000 U.S. Lives during COVID

The numbers of lives lost and dollars spent would have been significantly lower if universal health care had been in place, a new study says

A woman walks among a field of some 660,000 white flags representing the number of U.S. lives lost to COVID-19 at the National Mall in Washington, D.C, on September 16, 2021. Credit: Rod Lamkey/CNP/Sipa USA/Alamy Stock Photo

Americans are more likely to spend on their health care than anyone else in the world. The American medical insurance system is fragmented, resulting in many unnecessary deaths and costs. Not surprisingly, COVID-19 only exacerbated this already dire public health issue, as evidenced by the U.S.’s elevated mortality, compared with that of other high-income countries.

A new study quantifies how severe the impact of the pandemic has been on Americans without access to insurance. According to findings published on Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, from the pandemic’s beginning until mid-March 2022, universal health care could have saved more than 338,000 lives from COVID-19 alone. The U.S. also could have saved $105.6 billion in health care costs associated with hospitalizations from the disease–on top of the estimated $438 billion that could be saved in a nonpandemic year.

” Health care reform in the United States is long overdue,” said Alison Galvani (director of the Center for Infectious Disease Modeling and Analysis, Yale School of Public Health). “Americans are wasting lives and losing money .”

People without insurance are less likely to have a primary doctor. This means that they are more likely be diagnosed with preventable diseases like type 2 diabetes. They also tend to wait longer before seeing a doctor if they become ill. These two factors already contribute to higher mortality rates in nonpandemic years, and they compounded the impacts of COVID-19. The disease is more likely to spread to others if there are comorbidities.

Prior to the pandemic, 28 million American adults were uninsured, and nine million more lost their insurance as a result of unemployment because of COVID-19. Galvani notes that while many Americans feel secure having health insurance from their employers, employer-based insurance can be cut off when they are most needed.

In the new study, Galvani’s team compared the mortality risks of COVID-19 among people with and without insurance, as well as their risks of all other causes of death. The researchers looked at the population characteristics of all Americans who were uninsured during the pandemic. They also considered factors such as life expectancy, mortality rates, and the effects of insurance on the elderly. They calculated that 131,438 people in total could have been saved from dying of COVID in 2020 alone. saved from dying of COVID in 2020 alone. And more than 200,000 additional deaths from COVID-19 could have been averted since then, bringing the total through March 12, 2022, to more than 338,000.

The researchers also estimated the cost of insuring the entire American population and the savings that would result. The researchers found that a single-payer system for health care would result in savings in three ways. They could make more efficient investments in preventive care, lower administrative costs, and have greater negotiating power over fees, pharmaceuticals, and equipment. This would ultimately produce a net savings of $459 billion in 2020 and $438 billion in a nonpandemic year, the authors found. Galvani states that Medicare for All would provide both an economic stimulus as well as a life-saving transformation to our health care system. It will cost far less than the status-quo .”


Galvani’s findings are “very convincing,” and “the method strikes me as exactly right,” says Robert Reich. He is a professor of public policies at the University of California, Berkeley and was not involved in the research. “The savings estimates are consistent in every other estimate .”


Ann Keller is an associate professor of management and health policy at U.C. Berkeley suspects that the new study underestimates the number of deaths that could be avoided by universal health care. It does not take into account the lower rates for chronic disease that often accompany single payer systems. Keller, who was not involved in the research, said that consistent access to care can prevent chronic diseases from developing and can help patients with chronic diseases be better managed. “If one takes that into consideration, I would expect that the estimates of avoided deaths would be higher than the .”


Whatever the exact figures, Galvani says the message that comes out of the new study is clear: “Universal single-payer health care is both economically responsible and morally imperative.”



    Rachel Nuwer is a freelance science journalist and author who regularly contributes to Scientific American, the New York T

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