Estimates released over the last week paint a dire picture of the health insurance benefits that have been lost as people lose their jobs amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Initial estimates by the Economic Policy Institute suggests 3.5 million Americans—including 420,000 Californians—have lost their employment and their employer-based coverage in the two weeks after March 12th. With the number of Unemployment Insurance claims in California doubling since then, the number may have risen to over 800,000 already, if not more.
Projections by Health Management Associates suggest the number might reach into the millions as the pandemic continues. If the unemployment rate continues to rise, projections estimate a huge increase in the number of Californians that will end up relying on coverage programs such as Medi-Cal and Covered California, as well as how many may become uninsured.
Medi-Cal could increase by 1.5 million to up to 3 million; Covered California enrollment could go up as high as 250,000. If unemployment rate stays around 10%, Medi-Cal and Covered California could be enough of a safety-net to prevent a spike in the uninsured. But if the unemployment rate increases to near 25%, the uninsured population could rise by over half a million.
This means hundreds of thousands of Californians are losing employer-based coverage at exactly the time we need everyone covered to comprehensively confront this public health crisis. Many of the millions of Californians who lose or may lose their employer health coverage during this pandemic will turn to Medi-Cal and Covered California for coverage and care, core programs that need to be protected and invested in, now more than ever. COBRA remains an option, but may be unaffordable and unavailable for many.
Californians losing on-the-job health benefits should take advantage of the affordable options for care through subsidized private plans in Covered California and no-cost public programs like Medi-Cal.
Covered California is now open for enrollment for any reason, and the income-based affordability assistance and new state subsidies should help more people get affordable coverage at this crucial time. Medi-Cal is open year round and will continue to be a lifeline for millions of Californians, including those newly unemployed due to the closure of big parts of our economy.
During the Great Recession, California saw Medi-Cal enrollment rise by around two million, and the number of uninsured rose significantly as well. Under the ACA expansions, Medi-Cal and Covered California could be enough of a safety-net to prevent a spike in the uninsured, but if the unemployment rate explodes, we could still see a rise in the uninsured by over half a million.
Even though California’s work to implement and improve the ACA now provides a more robust safety-net than we had in previous economic downturns, our health system still has significant gaps that need to be filled. We urge federal and state policymakers to work as quickly as possible to take action so that everyone can get the care and coverage, testing and treatment they need. Our health system is stronger when everyone is included, and this is more critical now in order to adequately confront the current public health crisis and contain this coronavirus.