My job title at a clinic in Washington state is Patient Services Representative, or PSR. Think receptionist/secretary. PSRs are usually the first live contact for patients once they have passed the road block of the obligatory phone tree. (“If you are bleeding out, press #1.”)
I am not answering the calls of patients who fear they may have contracted Covid-19. But people get sick from other causes, too, and my job has become one of trying to decide if a patient needs to be seen. Is it safe — given their specific health issues — for them to be seen now, or can they wait? Just coming into any medical facility now entails the risk of catching the virus.
We have learned some hard truths experiencing this pandemic. There are only so many doctors, nurses, medical assistants, and technicians — just as there are only so many healthcare supplies, ventilators, and hospital beds. Once patients sick with the virus fill every available space in the hospitals and clinics and occupy the hours of every available healthcare worker, then patients suffering heart attacks or strokes, car accident victims or women giving birth will have nowhere to go and no one to take care of them.
Patients that I speak with on the phone fall into three categories. Patients so panicked by fear of infection that they won’t come in to be seen by a doctor even if their situation is urgent. Patient who don’t take the contagion warnings seriously and insist on seeing a doctor even if their condition is not urgent. Finally, patients who are gracious when asked to reschedule, queue up on the phone to be triaged by a nurse, and are willing to follow the safety protocols when entering the clinic.
My workplace is privately owned by an insurance company and has money. Management mandated masks and constant hand-washing weeks ago. There is a bottle of Purell at every desk. Personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies are provided anyone who enters the building. Patients who come in are also screened for symptoms of Covid-19. Those are all good things.
Unfortunately, at the large, nearby, state-run, cash-strapped emergency room, nurses were forced to rely on donations of masks from nearby construction workers. And one of the worst requirements of my job is to verify if someone has adequate insurance. When new patients do come to our clinic with no insurance, or with Washington state’s bare-bones public health plan, they are sent on their way. Unless they can pay cash, of course.
The experts tell us that the Covid-19 pandemic will only end with a vaccine, and that its deadly march through the population can only be slowed by hand-washing, wearing masks in public, and social distancing. And only if everybody is on board. If every healthcare facility, every grocery store, every city and state in this country does its own thing, we’ll never stop it. At a time when knowledgeable, effective and competent leadership is needed, capitalism instead has spit out a Trump and his mean-spirited minions, trying to figure ways to make a buck off of people’s misery. At a time when a free, public, universal healthcare system run by workers is what we desperately need, what we have is a system that delivers poorer results at greater cost than any of the world’s highly developed countries.
It is going to take all of us, working together, to end this pandemic. While we’re at it, we should end capitalism too. Both are cases of life and death.