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Millions have lost health insurance during COVID-19 pandemic

Health Care and Health Insurance
by Kevin Ruggeberg
Millions have lost health insurance during COVID-19 pandemic
Millions have lost health insurance during COVID-19 pandemic

The economic fallout from the novel coronavirus pandemic is still unfolding in the U.S. and around the world, and one of the biggest points of concern for millions of people has been job loss. Not only does employment ensure a steady income for tens of millions of Americans, it also provides the vast majority with health insurance. Therefore, when mass job loss occurs, as has been the case since March, so too does mass loss of coverage.

While it's not easy to pin down hard and fast numbers on the exact total of how many people have lost health insurance as a result of unemployment amid the pandemic, Families USA estimates that roughly 5.4 million households have been affected as of mid-July. In fact, between February and May, more people lost coverage than had happened in any 12-month period since the data was first tracked, and these problems aren't likely to reverse course in the near future.

For instance, there are currently eight states where uninsurance rates are north of 20% (North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas and Nevada) versus just six where that share is under 10% (Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Vermont, Minnesota, Iowa, and the District of Columbia). What's more concerning is many of the states where uninsurance is spiking are also the ones where COVID-19 is spreading the most rapidly. But even the states with the lowest rates also tend to be the ones where uninsurance is rising most quickly, with Massachusetts seeing a 93% spike. Indeed, nearly 2 in every 3 newly uninsured Americans now live in just 10 states. This problem is being felt rather acutely nationwide but in states with fewer safety nets, given the overlap in growing uninsurance rates, it may be particularly troublesome for the recently unemployed.

Widespread job losses are putting more people at serious medical and financial risk.Widespread job losses are putting more people at serious medical and financial risk.

The broad view
With the above in mind, it should come as little surprise that people are largely concerned with the state of the national health care system on a number of fronts. A recent poll from the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that while only about 1 in 3 people say they are personally concerned with losing coverage, 87% indicated they are worried about other people's loss of insurance.

Meanwhile, more than 3 in 5 say they are concerned with the amount they personally spend on health care, and even more (2 in 3) are worried about being able to get high-quality care when they need it. Furthermore, 56% say they feel the federal government isn't spending enough to make sure the quality of care available nationwide is improving or adequately protected, though public sentiment is shifting toward believing such expenditures are appropriate.

The personal impact
Although people are largely concerned with the impact of the pandemic on other Americans, almost everyone reports having been personally impacted by it in some way. A separate AP-NORC poll found that more than half of respondents have been forced to work from home, and 44% simply opted to. More than a third were scheduled for fewer hours, and more than a quarter were told they would have to take unpaid time off. About the same percentage reported seeing their pay reduced at least somewhat, and slightly fewer had been laid off.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the number of people who were even somewhat confident they would be able to handle an unexpected medical expense slipped two percentage points (from 45% pre-pandemic to 43% during), and the number of people who aren't confident they can keep up with their basic expenses jumped even more sharply (from 19% to 24%).

Options are available
The good news for the millions of Americans who have lost their reliable health insurance is that there are a few safety nets that exist to help them find coverage. CNBC notes that some companies, understanding the gravity of the situation, are maintaining people's benefits for a time even if they are being let go permanently, giving them the time and flexibility to find alternative avenues for coverage. These alternatives might include Medicaid (depending on the qualification requirements in their individual state of residence) or signing up through state or federally sponsored exchange sites. They may also be able to sign up for COBRA, but this can be prohibitively expensive.

The problem is that in all but one state, more than 40% of people receive their coverage through an employer. Often, the number is significantly higher than that. As such, in most states, a majority of people losing their jobs are at risk for losing their coverage as well, CNBC noted.

For all these reasons and more, it might be wise for employers and insurers alike to put on the full-court press when it comes to helping people understand what their health insurance options are when they lose their jobs. This may be particularly important due to the pandemic, which puts people at even greater risk than normal for incurring massive medical bills, with or without insurance.



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