Over 7 Million Americans to Lose Health Insurance During Coronavirus Pandemic, 1.5 Million Have Already Lost Coverage, New Study Predicts

More than 7 million Americans are expected to lose their health insurance during the coronavirus pandemic, while more than 1.5 million are already estimated to have lost coverage, according to a new study.

The analysis, published Tuesday in the prestigious Annals of Internal Medicine academic journal, was conducted by researchers at Harvard Medical School and the City University of New York's Hunter College. The research estimated health insurance losses based on already reported unemployment claims, combined with the projected increase in jobless claims over the coming weeks.

With about 1.5 million American workers already estimated to have lost coverage after becoming unemployed, an additional 5.7 million are projected by the researchers to lose their coverage by the end of June, as unemployment claims are expected to climb. The researchers noted that conservative states that have opposed expanding the Affordable Care Act (ACA), commonly known as Obamacare, are likely to be the hardest hit.

"Coverage losses are likely to be steepest in states that have turned down the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act's Medicaid expansion. In expansion states, the share of persons who have lost or left a job who lacked coverage was 22.1% versus 8.3% for employed persons—a difference of 13.8 percentage points," the study's authors wrote.

"In nonexpansion states, the uninsurance rate among such unemployed persons was 38.4% versus 15.8% for employed persons—a difference of 22.6 percentage points. In other words, nearly 1 in 4 newly unemployed workers in nonexpansion states are likely to lose coverage, bringing their overall uninsurance rate to nearly 40%," they noted.

Coronavirus patients
Medics wearing personal protective equipment unload COVID-19 patients arriving at the Montefiore Medical Center Moses Campus on April 7 in New York City's Bronx borough. John Moore/Getty

Unemployment claims have surged to new records amid the pandemic. During the week ending March 21, a massive 3.3 million people applied for unemployment insurance, dwarfing the 665,000 claims that came at the height of the Great Recession in 2009. But a week later, that record was broken again when twice as many workers—6.6 million—filed for unemployment for the week ending March 28. The next report, for the week ending April 4, will be released on Thursday, and some analysts expect the number of new claims to be about the same as the previous week.

"The COVID-19 epidemic highlights the folly of tying health coverage to jobs. Our health care system saddles people with medical bills when they're least able to afford them because they've been laid off or are too sick to work," the study's co-author Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, a primary care doctor and professor at Hunter College and lecturer at Harvard Medical School, said in a statement emailed to Newsweek.

"Health insurance in the U.S. is like an umbrella that melts in the rain," the physician added.

Lawmakers and activists have raised concerns about the drastic loss of health insurance for millions of Americans, offering varying solutions. The problem is compounded by the fact that tens of millions of Americans were already uninsured or under-insured, potentially preventing them from seeking medical care even amid the pandemic. While Congress passed legislation to make coronavirus testing free, uninsured individuals may still be required to pay for treatment if they test positive.

The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, has argued that enrollment for insurance through the ACA must be reopened as the pandemic continues, while also calling for treatment for coronavirus patients to be free. His former rival, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who dropped out of the race on Wednesday, has pushed for expanding Medicare and Medicaid to cover the uninsured.

In an interview with The Nation published on Tuesday, Sanders said the federal government should expand the programs to "either cover or supplement all of the insurance programs in this country—the bottom line being that, in this crisis, people should not have to take money out of their pockets for health care."

Dr. David Himmelstein, a co-author of the new study who is an internist and professor at Hunter College as well as a lecturer at Harvard Medical School, proposed a plan like that put forward by Sanders to address the problem.

"In this emergency, Congress should make all of the uninsured automatically eligible for Medicare," Himmelstein told Newsweek.

President Donald Trump has said that the government will cover those who are uninsured by refunding hospitals for their coronavirus treatment. He announced last Friday that the part of the $2.2 trillion stimulus money approved by Congress in March will go for this purpose.

"That should alleviate any concern uninsured Americans may have about seeking the coronavirus treatment," the president said at a press briefing.