On January 20, 2021, Joseph Biden, the 46th president of the United States, and Kamala Harris, the first woman and woman of color to be elected vice president, were sworn into office. Also on January 20:
- Nearly 185,000 Americans tested positive for COVID-19; tragically, more than 4,300 died, according to data from The New York Times.
- Of the 31.2 million COVID-19 vaccines that had been distributed in the U.S., only 15.7 million had been administered, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cited by Fortune showed.
- More than 400,000 Americans had died of COVID-19, with the CDC projecting up to 508,000 total U.S. deaths by February 13.
The current state of the nation, and the world, leaves little ambiguity as to the new administration’s immediate priorities. In terms of healthcare, we also have a pretty clear picture of what the coming months and years could look like. This can be ascertained from Biden’s two terms as vice president under Barack Obama, his campaign promise to protect and expand the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and his nearly $2 trillion plan to combat the coronavirus pandemic. It can also be evidenced in his declaration that there was “no time to wait” as he signed a record 17 executive orders the evening of his inauguration — the first of 30 in his first three days as president and what The Hill reports will be 53 within his first 10 days.
Though it is difficult to see past the pandemic, there are many pressing and intertwining healthcare issues that transcend today’s crisis. Here’s a look at how Biden endeavors — and has already begun — to address some of those issues during his term in office, starting with the most urgent.
Leading, With Science, Through Crisis
Prior to taking office, Biden detailed his plan to combat the COVID-19 crisis and provide much-needed economic relief, proposing his $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan and setting an ambitious goal of administering 100 million COVID-19 vaccines in his first 100 days in office. In a January 26 press briefing, Biden shared his first steps toward that end, which include distributing at least 10 million vaccine doses to states, tribes and territories per week (an increase of 1.4 million weekly doses) and securing an additional 200 million vaccine doses. This, he said, would raise the total U.S. vaccine order from 400 million to 600 million and facilitate the vaccination of 300 million Americans by the end of the summer. In what he described as a “wartime effort,” Biden authorized the use of the Defense Production Act to support the production and supply of vaccines as well as personal protective equipment, tests and other critical pandemic response supplies.
Other swift executive actions Biden has taken to address the pandemic include issuing a national mask mandate on federal property, rejoining the World Health Organization and restoring the National Security Council's Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense. Official orders aside, emblematic gestures, such as mask-wearing and the return of Dr. Anthony Fauci to the podium as chief medical advisor, are telling indicators of Biden’s science-based approach to leading the nation out of the pandemic.
Closing the Healthcare Gap in Communities of Color
Many of Biden’s immediate actions as president are also testament to his readiness and ability to act on his broader healthcare agenda — namely, addressing health and economic disparities in communities of color. One of his first executive orders mandates a comprehensive government effort to advance “equity for all, including people of color and others who have been historically underserved, marginalized and adversely affected by persistent poverty and inequality.”
Addressing these disparities has also been central to Biden’s proposed pandemic response plan — from ensuring equitable distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine to providing economic relief and protections to those disproportionately affected by the crisis. In the early days of his presidency, Biden has offered a hopeful glimpse into the next four years, as he works to deliver on his campaign promise of expanding the ACA to benefit communities of color.
Achieving Mental Health Parity
Devastating illness, loss, unemployment and isolation have added fuel to an already worsening mental health crisis, with more than 40% of U.S. adults reportedly struggling with a mental or behavioral health issue related to the pandemic, according to the CDC.
Biden has long been vocal about his commitment to ensuring broad and equal access to mental healthcare. Through the expansion of the ACA, he has pledged to “redouble” his efforts as vice president to eliminate the mental health stigma, improve mental healthcare access and put into effect the federal mental health parity law.
Ending the Opioid Crisis
According to CDC data cited in The Lancet, more than two-thirds of the nearly 72,000 drug overdose deaths recorded in 2019 involved opioids. With the pandemic reducing access to treatment and forcing isolation from friends, family and support systems, CDC data referenced by the American Medical Association showed nearly 3,000 more drug overdose deaths in the first three months of 2020 than during the same period in 2019 — a trend that likely worsened throughout the year.
Biden’s plan to end the opioid crisis includes, among many provisions, a $125 billion investment to ensure universal access to opioid prevention, treatment and recovery services. He also plans to make substance use disorder care part of standard healthcare practice in all government healthcare programs, including his proposed public option plan.
Making Healthcare “A Right for All, Not a Privilege for Just a Few”
“…every American — regardless of gender, race, income, sexual orientation, or zip code —should have access to affordable and quality health care.”
Entering the White House during a time of unprecedented crisis and divisiveness, Biden faces equally unprecedented challenges; putting his ambitious healthcare agenda into practice will all but certainly be no exception. Reversing Trump-era policies, dealing with a “once in a century” pandemic crisis and overcoming procedural hurdles in a narrowly Democrat-controlled Congress are just a few likely obstacles among many. What we can hope, however, is that Biden’s overarching commitment to making healthcare more accessible, affordable and equitable, combined with his message of unity, will make strides in addressing not just the crisis at hand, but also the many systemic issues it has forced us to confront.
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