The coronavirus pandemic is exposing a central flaw in America’s health care system.
In the early months of 2020, Americans were engaged in the perennial election-year debate over how to best reform the nation’s health care system. As usual, the electorate was torn and confused. Polling indicated that a small majority of likely voters favored a new universal system that would cover everyone. But that support evaporated when it was made clear that any such overhaul would involve abolishing the private insurance market. At the time, nearly 160 million Americans received their health benefits through an employer, and the vast majority of them liked that coverage just fine — maybe not enough to sing about it, but enough to be wary of a potential replacement.
Then came the pandemic of the century. And the highest level of unemployment since the Great Recession. And the most concentrated wave of job loss in the nation’s history — more than 40 million Americans filed new unemployment claims between mid-March and late May. It will take time to learn the full impact of those losses on the nation’s health insurance rate, but an early survey from the Commonwealth Fund is not encouraging: 41 percent of those who lost a job (or whose spouse lost a job) because of the pandemic relied on that job for health insurance; 20 percent of those people have not managed to secure alternative coverage.
Nothing illuminates the problems with an employer-based health care system quite like massive unemployment in the middle of a highly contagious and potentially deadly disease outbreak. For one thing, uninsured people are less likely to seek medical care, making this coronavirus that much more difficult to contain. Also, people with chronic or immune-compromising medical conditions are particularly susceptible to this new contagion — which means the people most in need of employer-sponsored health benefits are the same ones who can least afford to return to work at the moment.