By Wendell Potter, 27 Mar 2020
The tragic effects of our battle with the novel coronavirus are seemingly endless. But arguably the most mind-blowing is this: the very pandemic that threatens to infect and kill millions is simultaneously causing many to also lose their health coverage at their gravest time of need.
Here’s how: the virus has caused a public health crisis so severe that people have been forced to stay home, causing businesses to shutter and lay off workers. And with roughly half of Americans getting their health insurance from their employer, these layoffs mean not only losing their income but also their medical coverage. In other words, just as our need for medical care skyrockets in the face of a global pandemic, fewer will have health insurance or be able to afford it. According to one recent report, the cost of treatment for Covid-19 can run around $35,000. As the patient in the report exclaimed: “I was pretty sticker-shocked. I personally don’t know anybody who has that kind of money.”Advertisement
So, how did we get to such a dire place? Many will sadly lose their jobs over the coming weeks – with one estimate projecting as many as 30%. And as they do, Americans are about to learn something horrifying: how irrational and irresponsible it is for so many to be dependent on employers for health insurance. Take it from me. I’m a former health insurance executive who once profited from this system. It’s time for it to stop.
America needs to finally get out of the business of linking health coverage to job status. Even in better times, this arrangement was a bad idea from a health perspective. Most Americans whose families depend on their employers for coverage are just a layoff away from being uninsured. And now, when many businesses are shutting down and considering layoffs, it’s a public health disaster. Across the country we’re seeing reports of layoffs in almost all industries. As we approach a global recession, some analysts suggest that a million or more US workers will lose their jobs in April alone. Consider what this means for health care in this country.
We’ve seen this before. During the last big recession, researchers at Cornell University found that 9.3 million Americans lost their health insurance between 2007 and 2009. Why? As people lost work, their employer-provided insurance went away. During this time, roughly six in 10 Americans who lost their jobs became uninsured. And this problem compounds itself. If the reason you lost your health insurance is that you no longer have steady employment, how are you now going to be able to afford monthly premiums for some other private health care plan? This problem becomes particularly acute when you consider that premiums for health plans sold on exchanges are projected to soar, as well, due to “unexpected Covid-19 costs”.
It’s worth noting that even in good times, the employer-based model fails to cover enough of us, with the number of Americans covered through an employer steadily dropping in general. Since 1999, the percentage of those with job-based coverage has declined by nine points. And it most certainly will drop like a rock in the coming weeks and months.