Job losses associated with COVID-19 are creating an alarming health care crisis. About half of the population in the U.S. gets health insurance through employer-sponsored coverage. As workers lose jobs, the sudden economic woes of unemployment are quickly compounded as they’re dropped from those employer-sponsored plans. A new study from Families USA looks at data from February to May and estimates that 5.4 million American workers have lost their health insurance. When covered family members and dependents are included, that number skyrockets to 27 million people without health insurance, according to the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation.
While employer-sponsored health insurance remains a significant part of the current health care landscape in the U.S., we can’t let those who’ve lost it fall through the cracks.
The jobless numbers will no doubt continue to be a moving target, but the speed and severity of the losses have been staggering. In February there were six million unemployed. By April the number shot up to 23 million. In June the figure was down to 18 million – still triple the amount from just four months earlier. “This is the worst economic downturn since World War II. It dwarfs the Great Recession. So it’s not surprising that we would also see the worst increase in the uninsured,” said Stan Dorn who wrote the Families USA study.
Precisely because the current economic downturn was created by a public health crisis, it’s essential that quality health care is available to all. While employer-sponsored health insurance remains a significant part of the current health care landscape in the U.S., we can’t let those who’ve lost it fall through the cracks. We should also seize this moment to rethink what works, and doesn’t work in our nation’s health care system. Even with health insurance, many families experience financial stress, hardship, and even bankruptcy under the burden of paying medical bills.
Containing the coronavirus is an immediate and pressing need, and so too is the medical care that has been pushed aside due to the urgency of responding to the pandemic. Delaying needed care or cutting back on treatment is common when people experience financial hardship and/or lose health coverage. In the age of coronavirus, the consequences can be disastrous. Not seeking care allows time for the virus to infect others. Those suffering from chronic conditions risk preventable complications and possibly death when appropriate care is out of reach.
These actions can help right now:
Thirty-seven states have already acted to expand Medicaid eligibility utilizing federal dollars through the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Increasing federal support could incentivize all states to get on board as well as relieve financial pressures among those states that have already expanded Medicaid. Among the top 10 states with the highest number of uninsured adults, all but two are states without expanded Medicaid coverage.
A University of Michigan report evaluating the first five years of Michigan’s Medicaid expansion program indicates across-the-board improvements in health outcomes as well as cost containment. Preventive services were well utilized, and emergency room usage dropped.
Help workers afford COBRA benefits
Laid offworkers can keep their employer-sponsored health insurance for 18 months if they can afford to pay for it.Federal assistance allowing unemployed workers to keep their coverage creates minimum disruption while safeguarding individual as well as public health. While it is unknown at this time how many of the millions of COVID-19 related job losses will be permanent, COBRA is a short-term solution that most could not realistically afford without assistance.
Strengthen the Affordable Care Act (ACA)
Expanding access to the ACA’s subsidized insurance market can be a virtual lifeline for the newly unemployed. Increasing federal premium supports can help those who don’t qualify for Medicaid or cannot afford COBRA. Opening a Special Enrollment Period (SEP) on the federal health insurance exchange could allow as many as 600,000 uninsured people to quickly sign up for benefits instead of waiting for open enrollment in the fall. Twelve of the 13 state health insurance exchanges have provided a SEP, leading to 300,000 more health insurance enrollments. “Taking steps like these to help people get access to health care during a pandemic shouldn’t be controversial, it should be common sense,” says Senator Patty Murray, who sits on the Senate Health Committee.
Federal support to help consumers understand eligibility requirements and whether a COBRA, individual market, or Medicaid plan would best serve their family’s medical needs can enhance health and create cost efficiencies.
Build a health care system for the long haul that puts human needs first
The quest for a system of affordable, quality health care is not new in this country. The late Michigan Congressman John Dingell co-sponsored a bill calling for national health insurance in 1943. Contentious arguments about the best system of care need to be tempered with a commitment to putting human needs first. When human needs are met, conditions for prosperity follow. We can do it!