California workers’ loss of job, hours may lead to no health care during coronavirus pandemic
Infecting more than workers’ health, COVID-19 may be targeting their critical livelihood and every staffer’s most coveted benefit — an employer-sponsored health care plan.
It stands to reason that when companies cut back jobs and even hours for employees, their health care plans are in jeopardy. During the pandemic, the loss of health care represents double-whammy devastation.
More than 2.7 million people are uninsured in the state, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Covered California, the state version of the U.S. Affordable Care Act, or ACA, states that number may amount to many more in 2020. At least 1.2 million are eligible for assistance.
The health care network, which announced Thursday it’s extending the open enrollment period through mid-May, has signed up 1.4 million people for the coverage.
“That’s the highest number we’ve ever started the year with,” Covered California spokesman James Scullary told the Business Journal.
According to the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., since the onset of the COVID-19 shock to the economy, about 6.2 million workers have lost access to health insurance they previously had with their employers.
The Urban Institute, another think tank conducting research in the nation’s capital, has collected data predicting about 12 million more could lose coverage by the end of January.
With U.S. unemployment hitting double digits and the North Bay economy dominated by tourism and hospitality, health care advocates and insurance brokers are concerned more people will have no coverage to fall back on in case they get sick.
“People are definitely going to fall out of the health care system. This was not unexpected. PPP money was running out. Health care coverage is extremely expensive. It’s worse in California,” said Craig Hasday, who represents the National Employee Benefits division of EPIC, an insurance brokerage advocacy group.
“Clearly, we’ve seen employers have had to make the difficult decision to discontinue coverage for their employees,” said Mary Ellen Grant of the California Association of Health Plans.
Some sectors in the California economy are doing well, while others are facing unprecedented losses. The San Francisco Bay Area — with all its wealth, influence and innovation — is no exception.
“When you look at the statistics, it’s really concerning,” said Valerie Brown, senior program officer for United Policyholders, an insurance advocacy group based in San Francisco. In her organization’s data quest, Brown found that hospitality, retail, manufacturing and health care were singled out as industries “disproportionately impacted” compared to others.
“This is not going to be resolved quickly,” she said.
“Restaurants have been laying off a lot of people. The real question is if they’re furloughed, can they keep their health care plan?” said Elaine Madson, the employee benefits service manager at the George Petersen Insurance Agency in Santa Rosa.
In the hopes of the coronavirus outbreak eventually eased, some companies which rely on the insurance brokerage firm to provide coverage furloughed their employees on a temporary basis, Madson pointed out. But as months went by, the situation became dire — especially with government shutdowns that yanked at least half a restaurant’s sales. Workers were sometimes forced to go it alone.
“A lot of people can’t afford COBRA,” Madson said, referring to the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985, an insurance plan that extends coverage after an employee is terminated.
“Some end up going to MediCal, Covered California (ACA), or they go without,” she said.
Much of that distinction is whether an employee qualifies for subsidies. Sometimes the level of income in the household is too high to receive them. To qualify for ACA financial assistance, the estimated annual income for 2021 should be under $12,760 for a single person or $17,240 for a couple.
By the same token, those seeking coverage may also not be poor enough to qualify for MediCal or Medicaid.
“That’s where they get stuck,” she said. “It kind of puts people in a bad position.”
Madson is not only concerned for workers’ health within certain economic sectors, but she also fears what happens to the system with many going without insurance.
To the detriment of the uninsured, they ignore symptoms until the advanced stages of their ailment. Then, they end up in the emergency room. Masses of people relying on emergency rooms for health care jacks up the costs even further — and worse yet, some medical facilities don’t accept patients without it.