Since his inauguration on January 20, President Biden has signed a slew of healthcare-related executive orders. “Healthcare is a right – not a privilege,” Biden wrote on Twitter in September 2020. On the campaign trail, Biden promised to prioritize healthcare. Now, it appears as if he’s following through. This article will explore how healthcare in the U.S. has changed and will continue to change in the coming weeks and months of the Biden administration.
Only a few hours after entering office, Biden mandated mask-wearing on federal property as well as on planes, trains, ferries, and intercity buses. He tightened travel restrictions, requiring foreign visitors to provide proof of a negative Covid-19 test before arrival. These orders were to be expected, as they shifted American policies to align with international safety standards. However, they signified the new president’s desire and willingness to address pressing medical issues.
This inclination was apparent in a host of executive orders on January 21. Biden directed the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) to come up with short-term and long-term solutions to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Department of HHS will provide immediate assistance to care facilities and residential treatment centers while overseeing large-scale Covid-19 therapy trials. Moreover, the department has also been tasked with researching the long-term health effects of Covid-19 and expanding access to treatments. It will work alongside the Department of Homeland Security to ensure the American public complies with mask-wearing and social distancing policies while evaluating federal insurance schemes to ensure clinical care is accessible.
The United States currently has a Covid-19 case count of nearly 27 million. According to a John Hopkins University dashboard, close to 450,000 Americans have died due to the coronavirus. One of Biden’s campaign promises was fixing the pandemic, and to that end, he has already appointed an Obama-era official as the Covid-19 response director to oversee testing and vaccine distribution. However, with vaccines only largely available for healthcare workers and the elderly in long-term care homes, it is critical that the U.S. limits the surge of cases during the winter. As a result, Biden’s Covid-related executive orders couldn’t have been better timed.
Biden has made changes to healthcare programs that will benefit Covid-19 response plans but, more generally, reflect a return to Obama-era notions. On January 28, he signed two orders. The first opened a special enrollment period for the Affordable Care Act (ACA), otherwise known as Obamacare, and directed agencies to review application requirements. The ACA was established during Biden’s time as Vice President to provide affordable healthcare insurance to Americans. Biden’s second order reversed the Mexico City Policy, which prevented foreign funding of abortion-related services. The policy is usually eliminated under Democratic presidents and reinstated under Republican ones, having been first established during Ronald Reagan’s time as president. Both of these orders clearly communicated Biden’s commitment to making a range of healthcare options available for all.
Biden’s actions stand in sharp contrast to those of his predecessor, who arguably exacerbated both the Covid-19 pandemic and issues in the U.S. healthcare system. Donald Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric on social media often disparaged medical science, while his budget cuts affected personal protective gear stockpiles. In addition, part of the reason Biden had to call for the ACA to be reviewed was because Trump eliminated individual mandates and allowed states to add work requirements, inflating premiums and making insurance less accessible during his time as president.
Crucially, Biden has not only made reforms to domestic healthcare systems; he has also demonstrated that the U.S. will support healthcare across the globe. In a letter to United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, Biden declared that the U.S. would not withdraw from the World Health Organization (WHO). Before Trump issued a one-year withdrawal notice in July 2020, the U.S. had provided close to 20% of the WHO’s budget.
In 2020, a cessation of annual dues resulted in America withdrawing from the WHO in a move many politicians and healthcare experts labeled “dangerous” during a pandemic. Now, Biden administration officials have clarified that the U.S. will resume its financial support of the WHO. Biden appointed Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, as head of the U.S. delegation. According to polls, Fauci was one of the most trusted public figures during the Trump administration. On January 21, Fauci announced that the U.S. would participate in the WHO’s COVAX program, which aims to distribute Covid-19 vaccines, tests, and treatments across the globe at fair prices.
These actions set the U.S. up to assume—or rather, resume—a leadership role in medicine. Similarly, progressive policies on issues like environmental protection and human rights are boosting American soft power in other fields.
If the first few days of Biden’s presidency are any indication of what the next four years will be like, Biden might just fulfill his campaign promises. The healthcare system might change for the better in a lasting, tangible way. In a future article, I will explore whether or not that remains the case after vaccine roll-outs.