Unlike the last time there was a nationwide recession, folks who lose their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic – and the health insurance that comes with them – may have a backup.
Healthcare.gov – the online insurance marketplace created by the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare – allows people who lose their employer-sponsored insurance to get a plan at any time. Usually, people have to sign up during a short enrollment period at the end of the year.
This could be an important tool as states start to weather the financial effects of the COVID-19 epidemic. In Texas, 275,597 claims for unemployment benefits were filed in the week that ended Saturday. The week before, 155,426 initial claims were filed, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Anne Dunkelberg, associate director of the health and wellness team at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, said recent job losses will likely increase the number of people without insurance in the state.
“With so many people losing their jobs or losing hours, there’s no question that some people in that process are losing their insurance,” she said.
Texas already has the highest rate and number of uninsured people in the country. An increase in the number of people lacking insurance could become an issue as the coronavirus spreads and more people need medical care.
“We definitely have new challenges,” Dunkelberg said, “for people who had employer-sponsored coverage or who were buying directly themselves through the marketplace and … for the people who are uninsured coming into this crisis.”
So far, the Trump administration and Texas officials haven’t taken serious steps to expand coverage. But, Dunkelberg said, some people may be able to sign up for a plan immediately.
Anyone who lost a job and the health insurance they got through that job can get a plan through Healthcare.gov, she said, unless their income drops below the poverty line.
“[Those people] are in the coverage gap group,” Dunkelberg said, "because Texas hasn’t done Medicaid expansion, you don’t qualify for Texas Medicaid.”
The Obamacare marketplace was created assuming states would expand their Medicaid programs to more low-income people, so it’s not open to people below the poverty line. Texas is one of only 14 states that decided not to expand their programs. That means many Texans who are too poor for the marketplace are often not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid.
Because this is a national emergency, Dunkelberg said, more needs to be done to expand health care coverage. She said the Trump administration should open up the Obamacare marketplace, so people who didn’t have insurance before could sign up.
And, Dunkelberg said, state lawmakers should consider expanding the state’s Medicaid program to more low-income people.
“In Texas, we will have a lot of people who will be left out if we don’t do Medicaid expansion,” she said.
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