This op-ed originally appeared in Morning Consult on May 19th.
To understand the true effect of the fallout of the current COVID-19 crisis, just read recent headlines. One of the latest jobs reports has been described as “unthinkable” and the road to economic recovery characterized as “long and painful.”
In response to the fiscal emergency, President Donald Trump and Congress have appropriated trillions of dollars and erected a panoply of economic programs to curb the individual and corporate downfall. These efforts dwarf the programs of the 1930s and the speed of enactment and implementation is unmatched even by the response to the 2008 financial collapse.
While each of these actions protects American’s income security, nothing has been done for the sake of health care security.
A frequent and heinous side effect of job loss is the loss of health care coverage. While policymakers seem to recognize the cold hard facts of joblessness, they have not yet focused on the potential loss of health care access. Clearly, that loss is a scary prospect for the tens of millions now out of work and their loved ones who live with the fear, not only of COVID itself, but the risk of any illness without insurance.
In fact, the historic job losses caused by this pandemic will be rivaled by the losses in private health coverage. Estimates released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation show that up to 43 million people could lose their employer-sponsored health insurance coverage.
There has never been a recession in modern times where we’ve seen private coverage plummet like this. It has the potential to undermine our fight against the coronavirus and do lasting damage to our health care system and economy.
It is time for Congress and the administration to step up and protect employer-based coverage with the same urgency displayed to protect paychecks. To stay on the sidelines and do nothing risks the collapse of a structure that provides coverage for 180 million Americans, and opens the door for an unsustainable one-size-fits-all, government-run program. That’s the last thing this nation needs as we fight to recover the economy, stabilize our health care infrastructure and support our heroic caregivers on the front lines.
It starts with making sure people retain access to their employer-based insurance. Policymakers need to provide subsidies and/or tax credits to employers to partially offset the cost of continuing to provide coverage for their workers.
Federal assistance to help people with the cost of coverage through the COBRA program is also vital. COBRA allows the newly unemployed to keep their current coverage, but the cost can be prohibitive without the employer’s support. Congress should step in and provide temporary assistance to help cover premiums so individuals and families already suffering job loss can at least keep access to the health care they had before the pandemic as they await their return to work when our economy reopens.
For the nearly 28 million people who didn’t have insurance before COVID-19 struck, policymakers should provide a new, one-time special enrollment period to enable them to get comprehensive individual market coverage. And enhancing eligibility for premium subsidies on the federal health exchanges will help those individuals to better afford health insurance coverage.
We applaud the bold moves already taken by Congress and the Trump administration, which have helped thousands of businesses and millions of employees. But as the number of uninsured steadily grows, we must do more to contain the damage. These few straightforward actions can stop COVID-19 from menacing our health care coverage system as it has our economy and the health of so many Americans.
Since 2001, Chip Kahn has been president and CEO of the Federation of American Hospitals, which represents more than 1,000 leading tax-paying hospitals and health systems, and has been a leading voice in health care policy in DC for more than 40 years in a variety of roles.