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12 million have lost employer-sponsored health insurance during pandemic

Millions lose health coverage during pandemic
Millions lose health coverage during pandemic... 05:54

The coronavirus is not only deadly, it's also leaving many Americans without medical coverage as the unemployment rate continues to surge.

Since the pandemic hit the U.S., more than 6 million Americans have lost health insurance they'd previously had through their work. And when you take into account spouses and children, the number of those affected climbs to more than 12 million, according to new research.

"Because most U.S. workers rely on their employer or a family member's employer for health insurance, the shock of the coronavirus has cost millions of Americans their jobs and their access to health care in the midst of a public health catastrophe," according to Josh Bivens, director of research at the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank.

Bivens and economist Ben Zipperer estimate that every person covered under their employer's plan also provides coverage for an additional person, on average, once spouses and dependents are included. That translates into roughly 12 million Americans being cut from employer-sponsored coverage, or ESI, due to job losses in recent months.

Insuring the recently unemployed is challenging, as many can't afford premiums for coverage through the Affordable Care Act or the program known as COBRA, which lets workers pay to continue their work-provided health benefits for a limited time period.

Of course, not everyone who loses their job-based health plan loses health insurance completely. Some people can get on their partners' or parents' employer-sponsored plans. Others join the rolls of public health insurance, the EPI researchers noted. Still, Medicaid and other types of public insurance has not expanded enough to cover all those who have lost their job-based insurance, Bivens and Zipperer found.

$3,200 ER bill for coronavirus-like symptoms 04:47

With more than half of Americans relying on an employer for health insurance, the prospect of mass layoffs during a pandemic creates a potential public health crisis, other researchers have noted.

The EPI is calling on policy makers to sever the link between access to health insurance and specific jobs, pointing to a "single payer" plan like Medicare for All as one way to address the issue. 

Less ambitious steps could include lowering the age of eligibility for Medicare and/or incorporating into the Affordable Care Act marketplace a public option that enrolls all workers without job-based insurance, Bivens and Zipperer noted.

At a minimum, the federal government should pay for all testing and treatment for coronavirus-related expenses, the researchers said.

As Zipperer put it: "The coronavirus pandemic has exposed how incomplete and threadbare the U.S. safety net and social insurance system is."

A separate analysis, published in May by the Urban Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, estimated that by the end of the year, 10.1 million people would no longer have employer-sponsored health insurance as a result of losing a job due to COVID.

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