Democratic lawmakers are expected to announce a proposal this week for expanding Medicare to cover millions of people who lost their employer-sponsored health coverage due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to health care advocates on Capitol Hill. Meanwhile, public support for a Medicare for All universal health care system has surged during the COVID-19 outbreak.
An estimated 9.2 million workers likely lost health coverage sponsored by employers over the past month as workplaces shuttered due to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, according to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). Spouses and family members are often covered by the same health plan, so millions more people have likely lost health coverage during this unprecedented public health crisis. Thanks to loss of income, even people who retain health insurance independent from employment are having trouble paying for it. As Truthout has reported, researchers estimate that 2 million people living without health insurance will be hospitalized for COVID-19, putting further strain on hospitals that have been overwhelmed by the crisis.
On Wednesday, Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington) and Joe Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) are expected to propose the Medicare Crisis Program, a plan to expand Medicare to cover people who have lost employer-sponsored health insurance during the COVID-19 crisis. Medicare is the popular government insurance program for people of retirement age, and progressives have long dreamed of replacing for-profit insurance companies with a single-payer, Medicare for All program that covers everyone.
“This crisis has shown some of the extreme downsides of linking health coverage to specific jobs, and I think the long-run efficiency benefits of de-linking these would be large and welcome for most workers,” said EPI research director Josh Bivens in an interview over email.
While details about the Medicare Crisis Program are forthcoming, experts say expanding Medicare to cover newly uninsured people would benefit public health and provide a boost to the beleaguered economy. As of Tuesday, there were more than 1 million COVID-19 cases across the United States, and more than 57,000 people have died of complications related to the disease, according to The New York Times. Over the past five weeks, more than 26 million people filed unemployment claims after losing their jobs due to coronavirus.
Bivens told Truthout that covering people who lose their health coverage with Medicare during the crisis would leave them with more money to spend, because their income and savings would not be depleted by health care costs. That means more people would be likely to spend more money once stay-at-home orders are lifted, helping the economy recover.
Under the current system, more than half of all Americans worry about being able to pay medical bills in the event of a serious accident or illness, and Bivens said that insurance costs may be exacerbated by the pandemic.
“It is likely that private health insurance premiums will jump substantially in the next year as the costs of covering coronavirus patients becomes clear,” he said. “All else being equal, these higher premium payments will crowd out space for wage growth and/or harm businesses margins.”
Private insurers have said they would waive co-pays and deductibles for telemedicine and treatment for COVID-19, but many have so far failed to reduce financial barriers to telemedicine for patients stuck at home, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. The nation’s health care system is a complex and fragmented mix of public programs and for-profit businesses, and the shift toward telemedicine has been cumbersome.
Meanwhile, health care is shaping up to be the defining issue of the 2020 elections. Health care already topped the list of issues on the minds of voters before the pandemic, which has exposed glaring problems with the nation’s health system. Nearly half of respondents to a new Newsy/Ipsos poll said the COVID-19 outbreak made them more likely to support Medicare for All, including 66 percent of Democrats and 26 percent of Republicans. Another recent poll found support for Medicare for All at 69 percent.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, the democratic socialist from Vermont who has suspended but not ended his historic campaign for president, is currently the only major presidential candidate who supports Medicare for All. Former Vice President Joe Biden proposes to create a public insurance program that would compete with private insurers, a plan that would expand health coverage but leave millions of people uninsured and underinsured, according to analysis by Public Citizen.
With a public option, patients would still pay out-of-pocket costs for health care that would be eliminated under Medicare for All. About 100 million people would likely remain on private, employer-sponsored insurance plans, putting them at risk of a disruption in coverage if they switch or lose their jobs. While Biden is the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, progressives see an opportunity in the surge of public enthusiasm for expanding Medicare now that millions of people have lost their jobs and health coverage.
“Now you have the entire hole blown through the argument as to why employment should be the reason why you have health care or not, or rather that your health care status should be conditional based on your employment,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a popular Sanders surrogate and Medicare for All proponent, in a recent interview with The Hill.
While the Medicare Crisis Program may be temporary and some people will regain health coverage if and when they return to work, Bivens said Democrats would be wise to make those who sign up the first group of enrollees in a public health plan that would become permanent after the pandemic. This could help businesses reopen and aid the economic recovery, because employers would no longer spend money on health plans for their employees. Allowing more people to sign up for Medicare would also be a step toward a more equitable and affordable health care system, Bivens said.
“Using the crisis of employer-provided health insurance losses to start building up a public plan for people seems like it’s very smart,” he said.