Weekly Pulse: Health Care Companies Bank Record-High Profits—Yet Can’t Provide Free COVID Tests

For The Weekly Pulse (a revisit of an old Ms. column!), we’ve scoured the most trusted journalistic sources—and, of course, our Twitter feeds—to bring you this week’s most important news stories related to health and wellness.

In this edition of The Weekly Pulse, we take a look at the future of health care; rundown the most recent attacks to reproductive justice; address the presence of racial bias in health care; and provide updates on the coronavirus, with a closer look at how exactly the pandemic is affecting mental health.

The Future of Health Care

+ The Supreme Court announced it will hear oral arguments on a case regarding the future of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) on November 10—exactly one week after the presidential election. In 2012, SCOTUS ruled to uphold the ACA on the basis that the individual mandate—which requires individuals to have health insurance or pay a penalty—is constitutional because Congress has the power to collect taxes. In 2017, the Republican-led Congress changed the penalty for being uninsured to $0—in effect, repealing the individual mandate.

Rally in support of the Affordable Care Act at the White House in D.C., February 2017.

Now, unsurprisingly, a group of Republicans backed by the White House are challenging the ACA by arguing the law no longer has a legal basis, since the individual mandate is no longer tied to a tax penalty—and that the entire ACA should be scrapped because the individual mandate is an integral part of many of the law’s other provisions. Should SCOTUS declare the ACA unconstitutional, 29.8 million Americans will lose health insurance, and there protections for people with preexisting conditions will longer be mandated. The move is appalling cruel given the fact that—newsflash—we’re in a global pandemic.

+ While millions of Americans have lost their jobs and are struggling to stay afloat (because Mitch McConnell’s Senate refuses to pass a law providing adequate unemployment insurance), health care companies are making bank during this pandemic. UnitedHealth Group made $6.7 billion in profits during the second quarter of 2020, compared to $2.4 billion during the same period last year. Humana’s profits rose by $860 million, while Anthem’s profits increased by $1.2 billion year over year.

The Energy and Commerce House Committee announced it will be investigating why many health insurance companies are making it hard to get free COVID-19 testing, despite their record profits. Nevertheless, it is obvious a bulk of the profits are due to fewer people seeking routine health care and elective procedures this year. 

Repro Rundown

 + A federal appellate court ruled against the Trump administration’s request to stay a lower court’s injunction preventing the FDA from enforcing a restriction on medication abortion, which subjects patients to unnecessary COVID-19 risks.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) brought the case on behalf of a coalition of reproductive justice advocates, medical experts and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) to challenge the FDA’s rule “requiring that patients pick up a medication used for early abortion care in person at a hospital, clinic, or medical office—even when they have already been evaluated by a clinician using telehealth or at a prior in-person visit, and will be receiving no medical services at the time.”

Planned Parenthood Rally in New York City on 2011. (Charlotte Cooper / Flickr)

+ Georgia is appealing a previous decision which overturned a law barring abortions after detection of fetal cardiac activity—similar to “fetal heartbeat” abortion bans enacted in states like Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and Ohio. This will be a case to watch as it makes its way to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit as President Trump has appointed over half of the court’s justices. 

+ Texas clinics are seeing a rise in patients seeking abortions later in their pregnancies after the state’s temporary ban—signed by Texas Governor Greg Abbott—amidst the coronavirus outbreak this March.

“It’s infuriating because you can’t just turn on and off health care,” said Dr. Robin Wallace, medical co-director for the Southwestern Women’s Surgery Center in Dallas. “The hardship incurred when patients upon arrival were told that the courts just made a new decision and their appointment was now canceled—it was heartbreaking for patients and our staff.”

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Pandemic Updates

+ Scientists are reevaluating how many people need to be immune to coronavirus before herd immunity is achieved. Previously, researchers thought about 70 percent of the population would need to be immune, but now some scientists predict that number could be 50 percent—or possibly even lower. While hopeful, it remains to be seen what number is actually needed to achieve herd immunity, or when that will happen. 

Scientists also stress these are models and should not be used to make policy or encourage people to stop taking precautions against the virus. Furthermore, though the presence of COVID-19 antibodies seems to prevent a person from infection, scientists are still learning how COVID-19 immunity works.

Though the presence of COVID-19 antibodies seems to prevent a person from infection, scientists are still learning how COVID-19 immunity works. (Prachatai / Flickr)

+ Meanwhile, public health officials fear a “twindemic” during the quickly approaching flu season. A bad flu season could overwhelm our already strained health care system, and those with the flu are more susceptible to a COVID-19 infection. Governments, businesses and non-profit organizations are all ramping up vaccination efforts, and public health officials are advising people to get the flu shot as early as possible. 

+ Just one week into the new semester, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill cancelled in-person classes due to an outbreak of coronavirus on campus. The outcome doesn’t seem to be a surprise to students or faculty—although many thought the university would be able to protect against a severe outbreak for longer than a week. 

Emily Burrill, director of the African Studies Center at UNC, called the reopening and subsequent closing “a painful, unnecessary, tragic experiment.” North Carolina state also announced the fall semester would be moving online, after multiple outbreaks of the coronavirus. North Carolina schools are not alone, however, as universities and colleges across the country are struggling to manage reopenings

Face Mask Faux Pas

Coctors recommend people who choose to wear a face shield pair it with a traditional face mask.  (Prachatai / Flickr)

+ Face masks remain the CDC standard when it comes to COVID-19 personal protective gear—but some have opted for plastic face shields as an alternative. While the shields do aid in blocking some of the droplets that the virus could spread through, experts are not yet certain how well they will protect people compared to a traditional face mask. For now, doctors recommend people who choose to wear a face shield pair it with a traditional face mask. 

Dr. Joy Henningsen, clinical assistant professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine, notes, “We don’t have any data yet about whether or not face shields alone can help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus from an infected person,” but, “there’s no such thing as too many weapons against the novel coronavirus. The more protection, the better.”

+ Similarly, researchers say that certain types of neck gaiter face coverings aren’t effective when it comes to stopping the spread of COVID-19. In a new study from Duke University in North Carolina, researchers found that fleece neck gaiters made from a polyester and spandex blend aren’t effective in blocking the virus-carrying droplets. 

Experts say that if you are going to opt for a neck gaiter covering, look for one made of cotton and triple layered to ensure the most effective defense against the virus.

About and

Giselle Hengst recently graduated from Vanderbilt University with degrees in Women's & Gender Studies and Medicine, Health, & Society. She is currently an editorial and social media intern at Ms. magazine.
Corinne Ahrens is a recent graduate of The American University where she studied Political Science with a specialization in Gender, Race, & Politics as well as Women's, Gender, & Sexuality Studies. Corinne has been writing for Ms. since October 2019 and is a former Ms. editorial intern. She currently works at Ceisler Media & Issue Advocacy in their Philadelphia office.